Three Gorges Probe

The Story of the Dahe Dam: Chapter 4

Ying Xing
February 10, 2005

Chapter 4: A crowing rooster and the lonely ghosts

A crowing rooster (jiao ji gong) refers to 1) a person who deliberately makes trouble or 2) a person who is always keen to complain.
— Quoted from “A glossary of local dialects in Yunyang county,” Yunyang County Annals

In April of 1998, I planned a special trip to the county education
bureau to try to find out more about Teacher Xu’s activities in both
the Cultural Revolution and the Dahe dam protests. I believed it would
not be difficult for me to gather more information given that I had
already discovered so much about Xu from township and district files,
and that he was such a well-known figure in the county.

And so I was surprised, and disappointed, at what I found at the
education bureau. Staff there told me that Xu Shaorong was a crowing
rooster (jiao ji gong), but that his personnel records at the
bureau were basically clean. It was true that he had participated
enthusiastically in the Cultural Revolution, but he had done nothing
significant. He also worked energetically on appeals related to the
Dahe dam but again it appeared that he had done nothing wrong. Thus he
had encountered no trouble on those two big issues. He had only been
punished once, after his wife gave birth to an “extra” child in
contravention of family-planning rules.

I was also told that Xu visited the education bureau many times on
an issue related to his daughter’s employment. She had completed the
course to become a primary school teacher, and the county had arranged
a post for her. But Teacher Xu wanted the bureau to reassign his
daughter to a school closer to his home so she could take care of him
and his wife in their old age. The head of the bureau promised to do
something eventually, but Xu wanted immediate action. For a while Xu
visited the bureau almost every day. Each time, he came in and just
smiled at the other staff members as he marched directly in to see the
head of the bureau. He was very polite in talking to the bureau head as
he stated his problem again and again. If you helped solve his problem,
he’d say: “Thank you very much, you’re a great guy.” If you did nothing
for him, he’d just come back, over and over again, to see you.

The head of the education bureau became extremely irritated with Xu,
and would try to hide to avoid seeing him. In the end, there was no way
to dodge him altogether, so Teacher Xu did eventually have his problem
addressed. Xu was the sort of person who could get things done, and he
was also smart about it: If he had a sense that he was about to run
into serious trouble, he would pull back immediately. To pursue his
personal interests, he would pay daily visits to leaders, but he would
never take really drastic actions. So although he made a lot of trouble
for officials at various levels, they always had difficulty finding an
excuse to punish him.

I thought the official at the education bureau was rather biased
against Teacher Xu in recording such observations. But in fact, the
“confession” written and signed by Xu himself to some extent confirmed
the above, particularly in terms of his character and personality:

“At the end of 1972, I was happy to receive notification
that I had finally been made a regular teacher. However, I became upset
when I read in the letter that I had been put only in salary grade 27.
My application to become a regular teacher had once been turned down,
and I thought that, even now, someone in the education bureau was
giving me a hard time by placing me in a lower salary grade than
expected. People who had graduated from high school in the same year as
or even later than me were in salary grade 26, and primary-school
teachers were also put in a higher salary grade than me, when I was
teaching junior high school.

“With the notice in hand, I set off at once for the education
bureau, where I asked to see the head of personnel, Zhou Yongan. Zhou
was unhappy about my conduct and lectured me: ‘You ask too much so soon
after becoming a regular teacher.’ I didn’t listen to him but spoke
vehemently: ‘Just tell me the policy. I really don’t care what grade
I’m in, as long as my salary is in line with the policy.’ I visited
many other departments at the education bureau, asking to see the
official documents outlining the salary policy. I visited the education
bureau many times, besieging Zhou and the head of the bureau again and
again. I even went to ask for help from the county governor, hoping he
might intervene on my behalf. Finally, two years later, I was put in
grade 25 based on an official document issued by the provincial

From Xu’s own account, it was clear that his usual practice was to
pester incessantly to achieve a goal. Pestering is not as urgent as a
collective action that leads to a disturbance or even a riot, but in
some circumstances the governments still have to pay attention and deal
with it. Local officials were well aware that Teacher Xu was a tough
customer who was particularly skilled at the art of pestering. If Xu
became involved in the appeals to higher authorities calling for
investigations into the misuse of funds by local governments, he would
attract many followers and stir up no end of trouble. So the local
officials branded Teacher Xu “a pain the ass” who had to be put in his
place at all costs.1

The family-planning factor

Teacher Xu was adept at achieving his goals and protecting his
personal interests by taking advantage of his knowledge of government
policies. However, on one score he left himself vulnerable to
punishment: He was determined to have several sons. Like his father
before him, he longed for sons who would bear the family name and
support him and his wife in their old age. He also had high
expectations for his sons. He had always believed that he would be able
to make something of humself by going to university, and he was
bitterly disappointed when the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution
shattered that dream. Now he invested all his hopes in the sons that he
intended to have.

Xu’s wife gave birth to two girls in succession, and the second
daughter suffered from a congenital abnormality. His wife then gave
birth to a third child, a boy, in June of 1977, when the
family-planning campaign was at an early stage and no compulsory
policies were yet in place. Teacher Xu didn’t want to stop at just one
son. But in March of 1980, when his wife was pregnant with their fourth
child, the one-child policy was already in force. Fearing a heavy fine,
Xu asked his wife to go away and give birth outside of their area. So
their third daughter was born elsewhere, and then left with a relative.
Half a year later, they took the girl back but didn’t identify her as
their own. They told everyone they were taking care of the baby on
behalf of a relative.

In April of 1981, when the Dahe hydropower station began disbursing
the funds earmarked for people who had been affected by the erosion,
Teacher Xu suddenly claimed the girl was his own daughter and asked for
her share of the compensation. Later, he also claimed the girl was
eligible for a share of the land redistributed by the village. After
learning that that request would not be granted, he took over 0.2 mu
of the village’s reserve land, giving rise to a disturbance in which
many villagers followed his example and took over reserve land for

Officials at the production team, production brigade, commune and
district levels visited Xu’s home many times to collect the
family-planning fine and ask him to return the land he had occupied.
But each time, the officials went away empty-handed after receiving a
scolding. In the second half of 1982, Xu’s wife became pregnant again.
This time, Xu sent his wife to hospital for an abortion.

The commune was still far from satisfied with Xu’s conduct and was
ready to take tough action. Commune officials were now completely fed
up with him, because his occupation of village land had set a bad
example that others had followed. Even those villagers who had not
taken over any of the reserve land felt aggrieved and began to complain
bitterly. The problem of Xu and the land dispute had to be addressed.
So the commune set up a special group to examine Xu’s case, which
looked everywhere for evidence against him and completed its
investigation in January of 1983. The party committee of Shanyang
commune made several suggestions in a report it then submitted to
higher levels:

  1. Xu must be forced to pay a family-planning fine;
  2. Compensation money given in the name of Xu’s third daughter must be returned to the commune;
  3. Xu must give back the village land he took over;
  4. Xu should be forced to have a vasectomy;
  5. Xu should be discharged from public employment because he is not fit to be a teacher.

Attached to the report was a statement from Teacher Xu, dated January 31, 1983:

“I will try to persuade my wife to go to hospital for the
[sterilization] operation. If she doesn’t agree to go, I’d like the
commune to continue its ideological work with her. I will have a
vasectomy before the Chinese New Year if my wife does not agree [to
have her tubes tied]. P.S. I have tried to persuade my wife many times
[to undergo the procedure], but she has not agreed to it. I agree to
whatever the commune does to her if she continues to refuse to go.”

Xu may have had no idea what he was agreeing to in signing that
statement, or how serious the consequences of flouting the
family-planning policy would be. By the second half of 1983, the
commune had still not received a response from the county government to
their suggestions on how to deal with Xu. And neither Xu nor his wife
had gone to hospital to be sterilized; as time went by, they assumed
they weren’t going to be forced to do so after all. What they didn’t
know was that their situation had actually taken a turn for the worse.
Officials at the district and commune levels were on the warpath,
having realized that Teacher Xu was the person writing the appeals that
accused local cadres of embezzling funds disbursed from the prefecture
in 1980.

It was at this time that another flood hit the Shanyang area. Though
not as severe as the 1982 disaster, it still prompted a new wave of
requests for the land issue to be resolved and for the money from the
prefecture for people affected by the erosion to be disbursed.
Officials at the district and commune levels were feeling the heat from
above and below. On the one hand, the county government was insisting
on an investigation into the funding issue, while on the other hand,
local people were pressing for the compensation owed. And what the
district and commune officials most wanted to do was to strike hard
against Teacher Xu, the troublemaker who seemed to be the source of all
their problems.

They saw their chance to go after him when the central government
launched a nationwide campaign against criminal elements who threatened
social stability. People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, ran the
following piece on the eve of the campaign:

“Xinhua news agency, August 30, 1983: The second session of
the sixth National People’s Congress continued a discussion on issues
related to social stability. Delegates pointed out the urgency of
cracking down hard on criminal activities, which represent a political
struggle between the enemy and the people. One after another, they made
passionate speeches urging that tough measures should be taken, and
criminals hit hard, with the full force of the law. It is imperative
that severe punishment should be meted out to those who commit
extremely serious crimes. In so doing, a stable social order can be
maintained and a healthy social atmosphere fostered, in an effort to
develop and strengthen political stability and unity, and ensure that
socialist construction proceeds smoothly.”

On the evening of the same day, Chen Anxian, party secretary of
Shanyang commune, held a meeting attended by members of the commune
party committee. The meeting focused on three issues:

  1. How to disburse the funds earmarked for emergency relief after the 1982 flood;
  2. How
    to develop town and village enterprises in the commune, with a debate
    on whether the calcium-carbide factory should be shut down; and
  3. A
    study of the central government documents on fostering a healthy social
    atmosphere, while identifying people who should be targets of an
    anti-crime crackdown. (According to the central government, criminal
    gangs, criminals on the run, those who have committed murder or arson,
    and people engaged in prostitution or who have committed bigamy were to
    be severely punished.)

After a discussion, the commune party committee named 35 people to
be targeted in the crackdown on crime, with charges against them
including theft, violence, gambling and trafficking in women. It was no
surprise that Teacher Xu’s name was also on the list, cited on a charge
created specially for him: “Disturbing the household responsibility
system, violating the family-planning policy and occupying land by

On September 4, a People’s Daily editorial was headlined, “Criminal
activities must be severely punished.” On September 16, He Zhaoting,
the deputy party secretary of Shanyang, went to Liuping to investigate
Xu’s case. After meeting with the head of the production team, Huang
Guangfu, and other villagers, he went to Xu’s house. Xu was not home
but his father was. Without knowing the purpose of He’s visit, Xu’s
father talked to him about the land dispute and about how Huang Guangfu
and his daughter-in-law had threatened Xu’s family at knifepoint,
demanding that they return the occupied field to the production team.

He Zhaoting listened carefully and jotted down what he heard, but
didn’t say a single word. At the end of the interview, he forced Xu’s
father to affix his seal on the note he had made of their meeting.
After He’s departure, Xu’s father realized something was amiss with
that strange interview. Worried about what he had told the official, he
hurried to the offices of the county government. The staff at the
Letters and Visits Office tried to calm him down and reassure him,
saying the masses should trust the government.

On September 20, Shanyang commune held a second meeting on the
anti-crime campaign. Of the 40 names now on their list, 17 were chosen
as “urgent cases,” and Xu Shaorong was one of these. The commune sent
documents on Xu to the county government, but county officials thought
the evidence gathered was insufficient to reach a decision on Xu’s
case. Commune officials, however, were determined to go after Xu, so
they decided to act on their own and ignore the county’s view.

Teaching Xu a lesson

One day in October, the special group formed by the commune to
pursue the case against Teacher Xu went to the village on the pretext
of inspecting the progress of family-planning programs. At that time,
Xu’s wife, Du Huishun, had been fitted with an IUD. She suffered from
severe anemia and also had psychological problems. Doctors at the
county hospital had warned that she was so anemic it would be dangerous
for her to undergo tubal ligation at that time, and that she should
have a period of rest before the operation was attempted. But the
officials paid no attention to the medical advice. They went to her
home, handcuffed her and tied her with a rope, like an animal, and led
her away.

Du was hauled off to the township hospital, where she was
immediately put on an operating table. She struggled mightily, pleading
not to have the operation because of her severe anemia, but the doctor
told her it was pointless to protest: The deputy head of Shanyang
district, Lin Qingshu, had given the hospital staff Du’s name and told
them the operation must be done without fail, even with coercion and no
matter how dangerous it might be. It took only eight minutes to finish
the operation, and Du fell into a coma as a result of it.

Xu realized how dangerous his situation was, and wisely decided not
to follow his wife to the hospital. Later, a family-planning official
confided to him that he could have been killed for the crime of
“disturbing the birth-control program” if he had attempted to prevent
the operation. Armed officials, it was said, were hiding near the
hospital. It’s impossible to know whether Xu really would have been
shot if he had approached the hospital, but he certainly would have
been beaten up if he had gone anywhere near it.

Afterward, the county still did not agree to regard Teacher Xu as a
legitimate target of the anti-crime campaign. It did not even deem it
appropriate to accuse him of violating the birth-control program,
citing a lack of evidence. Responding to the county’s stance, the
commune decided to hold another discussion, this time focusing on how
to come up with more evidence against Xu. At the December 25 meeting,
Pu Shaosong, the head of the commune, said the anti-crime campaign
“provided us with a great opportunity to force Xu’s wife to have her
tubes tied. But I think Xu deserves further harsh punishment.”

The officials decided that, to this end, a new report should be
produced based on all the available evidence against Xu, while
emphasizing the chaos his actions had caused in land redistribution.
Finally, the county government did decide to act, ruling that Xu had
contravened the family-planning policy by having a fourth child. A fine
was imposed for this offence: For the next 14 years, Teacher Xu would
have to forfeit 10 per cent of his monthly salary.

The forced sterilization of his wife in 1983 was a big blow to
Teacher Xu, and devastated the whole family. Du Huixun, of course,
suffered the most: Her weight dropped rapidly after the surgery,
falling by about 40 pounds. She was so weak that she was unable to do
any heavy labour for the next three years. When I interviewed Xu in
1997, he said he had felt deeply hurt by the commune’s cruelty and
brutality, and that the incident had brought a great deal of suffering
to him and his family. But it had not scared him off. I was struck by
his tone of voice and facial expressions as he spoke with deep loathing
about an event that had happened more than a dozen years earlier. He
told me that it had hardened his heart, spurring him on to continue
appealing to higher authorities and organizing protests. Although the
incident had nothing to do with Dahe dam resettlement issues, the
commune used his family-planning infraction as a pretext to punish him
harshly. But from then on, Xu vowed to carry on the struggle on issues
related to the Dahe dam, and to fight the commune to the end.

Xu also learned an invaluable lesson from this bitter experience.
The reason he ran into such trouble and his family suffered such a
disaster was not just because he had given the commune a reason to
punish him. It also came about because he himself was isolated from the
masses. They were not yet on his side, and so they did not feel
inclined to lend him a helping hand when he was in trouble. The masses
were certainly dissatisfied with both the district and commune
officials, who had embezzled funds from the prefecture that were meant
to go to erosion-affected families. But they were still unorganized,
and had not yet begun to draw a distinction between “us” and “them” –
in other words, between fellow farmers and the local authorities.

And so even as they turned to him to write their letters of appeal,
local people still also kept reporting on him to the authorities. For
example, two months after Xu’s wife underwent the forced sterilization,
Huang Guangfu, the head of the production team, went to the county
government to accuse Xu of not returning to the production team the
field he had been given on account of his fourth child. Other villagers
looked on with folded arms when he ran into trouble with the commune,
even though they themselves were accusing the same officials of
wrongdoing. Teacher Xu came to realize the importance of organizing the
masses in a systematic way, and making it clear to them that the
commune was the source of all their misfortune and suffering. The
people, united and well organized, would become a powerful force, able
to protect their interests and to win what was rightfully theirs.

Officials at the grassroots level were alarmed about the collective
actions involving appeals to higher authorities that Teacher Xu and
others were organizing. These appeals were addressed to the superiors
of these grassroots officials – in other words, to people who had a
direct say in their political careers. Little wonder, then, that the
grassroots units were keen to go after the leaders who organized the
appeals to higher levels – though that crackdown itself was likely to
provoke a counterattack from an “elite” group of the affected people
that would form in order to fight back.2 In this way, “leftover problems” related to the resettlement operation were constantly reproduced.

Leftover problems multiply

In the space of three days in December of 1983, four production
teams in the erosion zone sent three letters of appeal to the county
party committee and government in the name of all five production teams
in the Baiyang and Liuping brigades. From January to June of 1984,
Liang Yongde, on behalf of the above four production teams plus Mingyue
16, sent dozens of letters to the prefecture party committee, the
prefecture court, provincial party committee, provincial committee of
discipline and inspection, and provincial people’s procuratorate, the
Letters and Visits Office of the State Council, the Letters and Visits
Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the central
committee of discipline and inspection of the Communist Party, the
supreme procuratorate and so forth. At least 20 of those petitions were
put into the record. At the same time, three other production teams
near the five above also began to send joint letters to higher
authorities at various levels. All of these letters were covered in the
bright red seals of the eight production teams. They represented the
heartfelt wishes of more than 1,000 people, and put growing pressure on
governments at all levels.

On February 13, 1984, five representatives of the eight production
teams travelled to the county seat to lodge an appeal in person. They
maintained that “nothing was achieved with the 300,000 yuan disbursed
by the prefecture in 1981. We strongly disagree with the commune that
this money was intended for the commune as a whole, and not just for
the affected people. We request that the county send officials to
conduct an investigation and act in accordance with the regulations set
by the prefecture.” On February 28, the provincial procuratorate asked
Shanyang commune to furnish details on this issue, and asked the county
procuratorate to report on the matter.

An “elite” group of affected people, the main organizers of the
petitions, was beginning to form, and two characteristics were apparent
at this stage. First, the scale of the collective actions had greatly
expanded. Before long, each production team would conduct its appeals
individually, but at this stage all the production teams affected by
the erosion problem were united in taking joint actions, which were
putting heavy, unprecedented pressure on all levels of governments.
Second, the protest organizers no longer confined their appeals to the
prefecture level, but went higher up. They had become aware that
authorities at lower levels would come under tremendous pressure if
their superiors learned about social problems in their jurisdiction
through these appeals. And the pressure would grow if the superiors
then telephoned the lower-level authorities to inquire further about
the problems. Thus, to get the lower-level officials to pay attention
to their complaints, the protest leaders would let drop something along
the lines of: “Your superiors are already aware of this situation.” In
some cases, this could lead to action even on some old problems that
local governments had already tried to address, but had not resolved to
the satisfaction of the complainants.

The following letter is a good example of how grievances were vented
at this stage. Titled “Request for an investigation into
emergency-relief funds,” the letter was written on behalf of affected
people in Liuping 4 and 5:

“With the construction of the Dahe dam, most of our
farmland was requisitioned or washed away, which led to great hardship
in our lives and livelihoods. The prefecture became aware of this
problem and tried to solve it on a number of occasions. We would like
to take this opportunity to express our sincere gratitude to the
prefecture and the county for all that they have done for us, all of
which was a good indication that the party and government really do
care about our interests.

“However, our problems have not been completely resolved. The
calcium-carbide factory was set up to provide employment for local
people affected by the dam and the erosion problem, but in fact we
gained nothing from it. The prefecture and county allocated
resettlement-related funds in timely fashion to Shanyang district and
commune. But the leaders there misused tens thousands of yuan, putting
them toward irrelevant ends. As a result, more than 100 affected people
had nowhere to go, and those who were moved to other places had no
access to replacement farmland or grain.

“Some leaders of Shanyang commune deceived their superiors and
deluded their subordinates, and acted in defiance of the law and public
opinion. We request that a thorough investigation be conducted into
what happened to this funding and to emergency-relief grain allocated
by the prefecture. We want to know how much of the funding was used for
its intended purpose. And we ask that higher authorities supervise
local governments’ implementation of resettlement policies, to ensure
that our problems related to the relocation are resolved. At this time,
we have no fields to plow, no crops to grow, no food to eat and no way
to survive. We are burning with impatience and sincerely hope that you
will be able to solve our problems.”

Another letter, dated January 6, 1984, and submitted on behalf of
peasants from eight production teams affected by the erosion problem,
highlighted how ruthless, heartless and lawless the local officials

“Over the past four years, many peasants and heads of
production teams have been beseeching district and commune officials to
save our lives by releasing the emergency-relief funds and grain. But
despite many bitter tears and tales of hardship and suffering, the
officials cajoled us, cheated us and ultimately turned a deaf ear to
our complaints. They also adopted the high-handed policy of coming down
hard on those who dared to speak out.

“Recently, thousands of people pooled their money, 10 fen [cents]
from each household, to send several representatives to the prefecture
government. The prefecture commissioner and Zhu the engineer, an
official at the prefecture construction commission, immediately wrote a
letter asking district and commune officials to deal with the problems.
But the commune still refused to act.”

It is interesting to note that in both of these letters, the
affected groups had no complaint with the prefecture, the level of
government that had made the decision to build the dam. Instead, they
stressed that the prefecture had been sympathetic to the plight of the
affected people by earmarking a large sum of money for them. If
officials at the district and commune had not misused and embezzled the
funds, the needs of the affected people would have been met, their
losses would have been compensated, and they would have felt no need to
appeal to higher authorities for help.

There is another point worth noting about the two letters. The
authors of the appeals identified the funds allocated by the prefecture
as “emergency relief” and themselves as victims of a natural disaster,
despite the fact that the prefecture actually disbursed the funds
before the two floods occurred in 1982 and 1983. It was true that the
floods, especially the big one in 1982, had made their situation much
worse. However, the writers of the petitions no longer attributed their
problems to natural disasters but to the wrongdoings of corrupt

Identifying themselves as “victims of a natural disaster” or as
“flood victims” would help the affected individuals feel a sense of
solidarity, while also underscoring the severity of their problems. In
this way, their collective actions would gain legitimacy and put
increased pressure on governments that were always reluctant to deal
with the masses’ problems and often resorted to delaying tactics to
avoid them. But the government also saw it as a problem if official
wrongdoing became so severe that the masses formed a low opinion of the

‘Who cares about the election?’

1984 was an election year in Yunyang county. Although the election
had nothing to do with the resettlement issue, the affected groups
attempted to disrupt election activities, to try and force the
government to pay more attention to the resettlement problems.
Disrupting the election became an important part of the appeals process.

One day in early March, the county government sent work groups down
to the district and commune level to mobilize participation in the
election. In Shanyang commune, the work group was greeted by complaints
from local people. Someone said: “Who cares about the election? Does it
make any difference to our situation? Until our problems solved, I
won’t go to an election meeting.” An old widow from Liuping 5 said
angrily: “I have nothing to eat right now. I don’t know if I’ll still
be alive on April 5 [election day].”

Liang Yongde, who was one of the most active participants in the
appeals sent from Baiyang 14, bombarded the work group with rapid-fire
demands: “We want you [the work group] to investigate what happened to
the funds allocated from the prefecture in 1981! We want an accounting
of those funds, and the results made public! We want an accounting of
the funds earmarked for emergency relief after the 1982 and 1983
floods, and the results made public! We want the unemployment issue
addressed! We want the problem of our eroded fields addressed! We want
funds that were earmarked for maintenance of the power grid used for
their intended purpose! We want an accounting of the calcium-carbide
factory, and the results made public! We want our problems associated
with our living conditions addressed! We want to know who is
responsible for diverting the special fund [the 300,000 yuan disbursed
by the prefecture and used by local governments to build the factory]
to other uses! We want disciplinary action to be taken against those
who pocketed the interest on the special fund! We want the
production-brigade cadres who embezzled the public grain, selling it
for money, to be punished!” Needless to say, the work group was unable
to carry out their propaganda and preparatory work for the election. So
the team had to change its agenda, and focus on investigating the Dahe
dam resettlement issue and bring the results of that investigation to
the county leaders.

In the report they submitted, head of the work team put what they
saw in Shanyang that way in an astonishing tone, “Of 163 people who
required resettlement because of the Dahe dam, 80 people never went
through any formalities for resettlement; 54 did go through the
formalities, but did not receive any farmland; only 29 people were
settled properly. Of 178 people from 36 households at Liuping village,
44 people from eight households have no farmland, 10 households did not
have a pig ready for slaughter in time for Chinese New Year, and nine
households had not raised a pig at all.” He warned that if the
“leftover problems” from the Dahe dam remained unresolved, the election
would be plagued by problems and, more importantly, major unrest lay
ahead. He suggested that the county send a special team to Shanyang to
investigate the people’s grievances, and thoroughly check the financial
issues so that the resettlement policies could be fully implemented.
Otherwise, he predicted, endless troubles lay ahead.

Interestingly, his recommendations coincided with a decision taken
by the county to send an investigative team to Shanyang. It had made
this decision because the resettlement issue had become tied in with
the election. Although the district and commune representatives who
attend the county people’s congress were generally handpicked by county
leaders, in theory they were supposed to be elected by voters at the
grassroots level. But if participation in the election was too low, it
would undermine the legitimacy of the representatives selected through
this process.

This was a rare moment, when the government had to rely on ordinary
peasants, who had it within their power to refuse to cast a vote. Of
course, collective actions such as this – disrupting the election or
staging a mass eat-in at the Dahe hydrostation canteen – carried
political risks for the peasants. Generally speaking, however, during
the meeting of the people’s congress and in the election period
beforehand, the government was keen to foster “unity and stability,”
and loath to exacerbate any conflict that had arisen with the peasants.
At these times, the government usually behaved in an extremely
tolerant, even soft-hearted manner. As long as any collective actions
undertaken in this period did not get out of hand, the perpetrators
would not be punished, but would be helped to push forward the process
of seeking a resolution to their problems.

Encouraged by the upsurge of collective actions undertaken by the
peasants in the erosion zone, people in other regions began to put
increasing pressure on their local governments to address their own
problems. In March of 1984, peasants in Baiyang 16 sent a message to
the government that contained a warning: “If our problems remain
unresolved for much longer, the consequences will be difficult to
control.” Several production teams affected by the dam that earlier had
distanced themselves from the petitions also began to take action by
writing letters or sending representatives to appeal to higher
authorities. Baiyang 7, for example, had not been involved in the early
appeals, but now was participating eagerly and demanding the same
compensation package being sought by other production teams. On April
19, 1984, three production teams (Baiyang 4, 8 and 12) submitted a
joint letter asking the higher authorities to investigate the diversion
of the emergency-relief funds disbursed by the prefecture in 1980. And
Zhou Changfa, a peasant in Baiyang 16 who for a decade had conducted
appeals on his own, firmly believed it was the head of the production
team, Chen Yexue, who had pocketed money that was meant to compensate
him for the loss of forest land. Together with two other households
that had run into the same problem, Zhou Changfa decided to report Chen
Yexue’s offence to the authorities.

The lonely ghosts

At the same time as all these appeals were mounting, many “lonely
ghosts” were wandering around the nearby hills. This was the term used
to describe people who had been accidentally electrocuted in Shanyang
tonwship from 1976 to 1982.

Production team Name Sex Age Date Location Reason
Liuping 1 Yan Shengyun Male 19 1976 Home Indoor wiring
Liuping 7 Han Wenshu Male 23 July 1976 Fangjialiang Touched a live wire while working outdoors
Mingyue 5 Zhang Shuxue Male 23 April 1978 Mingyue 5 Touched a low-hanging live wire while working outdoors
Mingyue 8 Yu Qihui Male N/A July 1978 Outside a storeroom Touched a live wire on his way home
Baiyang 16 Wang Dexue Male 36 June 1979 In a neighbour’s doorway Touched a live wire on his way home
Baiyang 13 Xiang Anquan Male 10 June 1979 N/A Touched a live wire
Liuping 2 Yan Fusui Male 46 July 1979 Caojueping Touched a live wire brought down in a storm
Liuping 8 Xie Xianhai Male 48 July 1980 N/A Touched a live wire
Baiyang 5 RanYihai Male 10 1980 Brickyard Touched a live wire brought down by wind
Liuping 4 Pu Zhiyou Male 36 1980 Home Indoor wiring
Honglong 1 Han Zhunguo Male 16 June 1981 N/A Indoor wiring
Baiyang 15 Buffalo N/A N/A June 1981 Baiyang 15 Touched a live wire
Baiyang 14 Xia Huaisheng Male N/A March 1982 Baiyang 14 Touched a live wire
Honglong 8 You Changmei Female 13 May 1982 Fanxiu Bridge Touched a live wire
Baiyang 16 Zhang Yunzhen N/A N/A N/A N/A Touched a live wire

The Shanyang township government submitted the above list to the
prefecture, insisting that the township itself could not be held
responsible for the accidents, which had claimed the lives of 14 people
and a buffalo in Shanyang alone. The township maintained that
mismanagement at the Dahe station and local people’s lack of
familiarity with electricity had contributed to the deaths.
Interestingly, there was no public weeping and wailing, or even
complaints voiced, by those who had lost loved ones in these repeated
accidents. This was especially odd, given that the appeals were nearing
a crescendo at this time. Why, for example, did Teacher Xu and other
leaders of the collective actions not speak out about these deaths,
when they had been so upset even to see local people having to beg for
a living?

Examining the list more closely, it became clear that the accidents
occurred in various production teams attached to four production
brigades in Shanyang over the course of seven years (1976-82). In other
words, the accidents were dispersed in time and space. Local people
viewed the events as personal tragedies, and did not feel a collective
outrage or any common ground on the issue. The situation was very
different in the case of the erosion problem, though both the
electrocutions and the erosion were linked to the Dahe dam. In the
latter case, local people easily saw the connection between the erosion
and the dam, because the discharge of water could be seen to have
washed away the soil, and it was not difficult to attribute the problem
to its source. Local people all over the region were experiencing
similar hardship as a result of the same problem, and thus were
connected by a shared sense of suffering. But in the case of the
electrocutions, individuals died as a result of faulty wiring indoors
or because they touched a live wire outdoors. Although the power
supplier could be blamed for flaws in constructing and maintaining the
grid, those who lost loved ones saw the events as acts of God for which
no one could be blamed.

I later learned from the archives that some of the protest leaders
did try to link the accidents to local officials’ wrongdoings,
especially at the township level. They saw it this way: The township
government had embezzled so much of the funding earmarked for the
construction and maintenance of the power grid that the work was done
poorly due to a lack of financial resources, resulting in the frequent
accidents and high death toll. But it turned out that this charge could
not stick, because of the township government’s simple but indisputable
claim: “Shanyang township did not take over the running of the
hydropower station until 1982. Before then, the Dahe station was in
charge of the power supply.”

And so the protest leaders no longer included the accidents in their
petitions, though the issue did come up from time to time. Their
quarrel was chiefly with the township government, and they wanted to
retain that focus in their campaign, rather than broadening it to
include the Dahe station.


1 Teacher Xu strove to protect
his own interests within the bounds of state policy. When that policy
was unclear, he would come up with his own interpretation. When the
policy explicitly failed to address his concern, Xu would hold his
tongue. However, when the policy did cover a particular issue, but
local governments were reluctant to address it, or did not do so to his
satisfaction, Xu would press his case vigorously, using unconventional
tactics such as repeated, intense visits to officials.

Xu was particularly adept at employing different tactics, such as shuo (speaking out), nao (making trouble) and chan
(pestering). Xu’s involvement was a major influence on peasant
resistance in the Dahe area. It was Xu who instructed the peasants in
how and when to use the various methods of petitioning officials,
according to the particular situation. “Speaking out” was rather weak
and ineffective without also “making trouble.” But one could easily run
into real trouble when “making trouble” if one did not also “speak
out.” Xu, a well-educated primary-school teacher who was well versed in
state policy, was the right person to lead the petition activities, and
he organized them well.

Li Lianjiang and Kevin O’Brien (“Villagers and Popular Resistance in
Contemporary China,” Modern China, No. 22, 1996) have identified three
main categories of peasant resistance to local power in rural China,
according to the degree of the resistance: shun min (obedient, tractable, compliant people), ding zi hu (“nail-like” people who are recalcitrant and defiant) and diao min (shrewd and unyielding people who are difficult to govern). The main difference between the last two categories is that ding zi hu don’t care about the collective interests and ignore government policies and laws, while diao min are familiar with those laws and attempt to use them as levers to protect their interests. Li and O’Brien call diao min “policy-based resisters,” and argue that they pose the greatest challenge to local power and political stability.

2 With the dismantling of the
people’s commune system and the launch in 1978 of rural economic
reforms, the state no longer intervened in every aspect of peasants’
everyday life. While placing an emphasis on economic development, the
state also asked governments at the grassroots level to pay attention
to the masses’ problems so as to relieve the growing tension in the
relationship between the authorities and the peasants. At the same
time, the state asked local governments to do everything possible to
bring collective actions under control and, in particular, to reduce
the number of petitions that bypassed the immediate authorities and
were sent to higher officials.

But local governments at the township and district levels were hard
pressed to respond to this request from the central government. They
faced a huge challenge, because of a decline in local authority and
their inability to cope with the economic problems the peasants faced
after the collapse of the people’s commune system. Local cadres found
it extremely difficult to “keep the petitions within the township and
ensure that no such documents go to authorities higher than the county

Appeals to higher levels are legal, but local governments will often
make a move against the individuals who represent the affected people.
Two main methods are usually employed: Dig out any past wrongdoing
committed by the representatives and “discover” their heinous motives;
then label the petition illegal and crack down on the representatives
for “organizing an illegal petition.” Another tactic is to find some
reason to punish the protest leader that has nothing at all to do with
the petition. One of the best examples is the heavy-handed treatment of
Teacher Xu and his wife for contravening the state family-planning
policy. In some cases, peasant representatives suddenly had to pay more
attention to their personal safety than to the masses’ problems they
were working on. In many cases, a collective conflict between the
authorities and the masses was transformed into a personal
confrontation between individual officials and peasant representatives,
which would lead to further intensification of the struggle.

In this book, I refer to “the elite group of the affected people,”
especially after Teacher Xu became involved in the struggle. Here the
term “elite” is used to convey a different meaning than the usual one.
Generally speaking in the West, the power of an elite stems from its
influence on society, rather than from its moral integrity and
authority. By contrast, the reason the peasant organization that sprang
up around the Dahe resettlement issue is called an “elite” group lies
in its moral integrity and authority, rather than its power or capacity
to organize the collective actions. Such moral integrity is
demonstrated both through this group’s determination to plead the cause
of the affected people and to fight corrupt local cadres to the bitter

3 The “disaster victims” label
helped to unite the affected people, bringing together peasants from
eight groups affected by the Dahe dam erosion problem. Suffering a
common disaster made the affected groups realize it was vital to unite
in solidarity as they pursued a common goal and put aside any internal
differences of opinion.

The use of the term “disaster victims” helped to produce subtle
changes in the affected people’s relationship with local governments at
the township and district levels, and with higher authorities at the
county and prefecture levels. On the one hand, the term could be used
to highlight how greedy and despicable local cadres were: The disaster
had been so serious and the victims had suffered so much, and yet local
cadres had still embezzled the emergency-relief funds in a most
uncaring manner. From the affected people’s point of view, it was the
local governments that had taken funds that higher authorities had
intended should go to them, so the peasants had good cause to try and
get the money back. Thus, the previous relationship – between the
humble ruled and the privileged ruler – had been transformed into a new
relationship between creditor and debtor. At the same time, being
accorded the special status of “disaster victims” allowed the affected
people to take some actions in fighting for their interests that
otherwise would not have been seen as proper. In other words, the
government would in certain circumstances tolerate “inappropriate”
actions from the affected people because of their status as “disaster

On the other hand, the “disaster victims” label was likely to worry
authorities above the county level, who tended to be more concerned
about the image of the government as a whole. The creation and
maintenance of that image had been seen as a foundation for governing
the country since 1949, and the ability to govern was likely to be
weakened if that foundation was undermined. It is also true, however,
that higher officials ran the risk of being accused of “sheltering
corrupt behaviour” or “making bureaucratic mistakes” if they did not
confront corrupt practices among their subordinates.

Chinese unit of measurement:

  • mu = 0.067 hectare or 0.165 acre (i.e., about 15 mu to a hectare or six mu to an acre)

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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