Three Gorges Probe

The Story of the Dahe Dam: Chapter 5

Ying Xing
February 16, 2005

Chapter 5: Bending the rules

“Many problems have been solved to date but there are still
problems left over from history. There is therefore a need to make
every effort to address the masses’ problems according to central
government policies and local conditions. When dealing with the
problems, do whatever you can to fix them, by stages and in batches.
When problems remain unresolved, the masses will persist in their
appeals to higher authorities. And if the hole in the dyke becomes too
big, the flood of appeals will cause the entire structure to collapse,
swamping higher authorities. So the key lies in fulfilling our duties
in a down-to-earth manner, and researching and investigating the issues
carefully so we reach a good understanding of the situation.”

Central Committee of the Communist Party of China’s instructions
to the third national conference on the work of the letters and visits
offices (1982)

Lifting the lid partway1

On Jan. 13, 1984, the prefectural procuratorate forwarded to the
county government the petition materials presented by the eight
production teams in Shanyang affected by the Dahe dam. After examining
the material, two of the county leaders wrote the following comments:

“These are vital issues. The Letters and Visits Office has
no power or ability to deal with problems such as these on its own. I
recommend that a joint investigation be launched to get to the bottom
of the matter. The problems should then be addressed appropriately or
the situation will become much worse. The county government should take
charge of the investigation and several departments, including the
Letters and Visits Office, should be invited to take part.” – Member of
the county party standing committee and director of the county party
committee office, January 22, 1984

“The county
government office will assume responsibility for forming a work team
consisting of staff from county departments such as the Letters and
Visits Office, the planning commission, and the finance, civil affairs
and grain bureaus. The work team’s task will be to go to Shanyang,
investigate finances (including the grain issue) and expenses, write a
report based on the investigation and submit it to the county for
further discussion.” – Deputy governor of the county government,
January 27, 1984

As these comments reveal, the county government had finally come to
view the problems related to the Dahe dam resettlement as urgent and,
after a delay of seven or eight years, was pledging to take immediate
steps to tackle them. At least three factors had combined to make the
officials react quickly this time. First, the joint collective action
taken by eight production teams affected by the dam, representing a
population of more than 1,000 people – 1,156 to be exact – made the
county authorities sit up and take notice. They were alarmed at the
size of the protest, and realized that if the situation was allowed to
persist, and the county government did nothing about it, the
consequences were likely to be serious.

Second, the county itself had not built the Dahe dam but
nevertheless was saddled with the responsibility of sorting out the
resettlement operation’s “leftover problems.” The petitioners had asked
higher authorities to send officials to investigate matters, and the
county had no excuse to ignore the request. And finally, now that the
elite group of the affected people had highlighted the issue of
official corruption at the district and commune levels as a major issue
in their appeals, the county had to try and clean up the mess to
appease the disgruntled masses.

And so, on March 16, 1984, a work team set off for Shanyang to begin a 12-day special investigation.2
The team was headed by a member of the county party standing committee
and director of the county party committee office, and included staff
from the county auditing, finance and civil affairs bureaus, and from
the Letters and Visits Office. The arrival of the work team seemed to
signal a preliminary victory for the Shanyang petitioners. It appeared
that the county government had doubts about the integrity of officials
at the district and commune levels, and about their ability to resolve
the problems. The event also sent a clear message to local cadres that
they would be forced into the spotlight of the special investigation.

Ten days later, the work team submitted a report to the county on
their findings. The report cleared up some facts related to the
commune’s diversion to other uses of the resettlement funds from the
prefecture, and to the cases of a number of peasants displaced by the
dam who had not been properly resettled. The report also contained
recommendations on how the county should deal with the problems:

  1. recover the money diverted by the commune (about 100,000
    yuan) and hand it over to the production teams affected by the Dahe dam;
  2. be prepared to repay the bank loans owed by the calcium-carbide factory; and
  3. ensure
    that the affected people are resettled properly, including those who
    were required to move but didn’t receive due compensation, and those
    who received the money but didn’t move.

In early April of 1984, the county party committee sent the county
procuratorate, along with other relevant departments, to further
investigate the financial irregularities reported by the Shanyang
petitioners. The results of that inquiry were basically in line with
the conclusions drawn in March by the joint work team of the county
party committee and government. In its report, this second
investigative team said it had not turned up any criminal activity, and
no district or commune officials were to be charged with any offences.
The team did, however, find that funding earmarked for the Dahe dam
resettlement had been misused or diverted. The report suggested that
local officials at the district and commune levels should be criticized
and receive “ideological education” so they could learn lessons from
the case and fulfill their duties more responsibly in future.

It is fair to say that it would have been impossible for the commune
to build the calcium-carbide factory with only the 100,000 yuan the
prefecture had earmarked for the project in 1978. The commune,
fervently hoping the factory would become a profitable venture, tried
various means to raise more funds to build it. Before they diverted
another 200,000 yuan from the resettlement budget to build the factory,
commune and district officials did pass the idea by the county and
prefecture authorities. The request was not made in any formal way, but
the county knew about it and did not raise any objections. In addition,
a prefecture leader verbally agreed to the plan during an inspection
trip to Shanyang in April of 1981.

Even with all the resettlement money being poured into it, and
despite a number of trial runs, the calcium-carbide factory never did
go into regular operation. At the end of 1983, the commune submitted a
report to the prefecture, asking for guidance on whether the factory
should be shut down. The prefecture made no response to this query.
Later, the commune considered the possibility of turning the failed
enterprise into a cement factory, but nothing came of that idea. And so
the ambitious plan to construct a brand-new modern factory turned into
a white elephant and a troublesome mess: All the resettlement money was
used up, with nothing to show for it but mounting complaints from
increasingly angry petitioners.

In these circumstances, neither the prefecture nor the county showed
any sympathy for the awkward position that district and commune
officials found themselves in.3
On March 26, Shanyang commune officials wrote a self-criticism about
having diverted the resettlement funds to the factory. By the end of
March, “Shanyang commune” had been redesignated “Shanyang township” as
part of the administrative reorganization in rural China that
accompanied the dismantling of the people’s commune system. And
Shanyang commune officials apparently felt terrible that they had been
at the centre of the serious investigation conducted by the county,
which coincided with the end of the commune system.4

Villagers’ views diverge

The Shangyang petitioners, particularly those attached to the eight
production teams in the erosion zone, were not satisfied with either
the report prepared by the county work team or with the self-criticism
submitted by Shanyang commune. First of all, the peasants in the eight
teams had asked the county to disburse all of the 100,000 yuan the
prefecture had intended for their benefit in 1981, but the county team
proposed giving them only 60 per cent of the money. The remainder was
to go to other production teams who were also lobbying for a share of
the funds.

Second, the peasants in the eight production teams insisted that the
commune officials who had diverted the money to the factory should be
investigated for corruption. But the county work team approached the
matter differently: The commune had diverted resettlement funds to
other uses, and that money should be recovered, but no official was to
be held accountable for the act, and the word “corruption” was never
mentioned. Third, the affected peasants wanted to take over the
calcium-carbide factory so that workers in the eight production teams
could get jobs there, but the work team paid no attention to this

In fact, there was a divergence of views among the petitioners as to
the greatest failing of the county work team’s report. Some people felt
it did not pay sufficient attention to the hardships in local people’s
lives, while others felt the county work team had failed to “lift the
lid” (jie gai zi) on the issue of corruption among Shanyang district and commune officials.5
This difference of opinion was reflected in the content of the
respective appeals the two groups submitted to the county government.

On April 8, Liang Yongsheng from Baiyang 13, Liang Yonggong from
Baiyang 14, Huang Guangfu from Liuping 4 and Yang Biqing from Mingyue 6
presented four requests to the county party committee and government in
the name of “representatives of the afflicted people”:

  1. The fixed grain quotas [handed over to the state] should be reduced for the eight production teams;
  2. 100,000
    yuan earmarked for the resettlement operation should be disbursed in
    its entirety to the people in the eight production teams affected by
    the erosion below the dam;
  3. Ownership of the
    calcium-carbide factory should be transferred to the eight production
    teams so that jobs at the enterprise can be arranged for
    production-team members;
  4. The county party committee and
    government, along with county law-enforcement departments, should lift
    the lid on the problems at the calcium-carbide factory so that those
    can be thoroughly resolved.

The letter was signed by the four representatives, though no
official seals appeared on it, as they had on earlier petitions. Later,
when I interviewed one of the four representatives in 1997, I learned
that the fourth item had been added after Teacher Xu lost his temper
and called the four people traitors. Liang Yongsheng recalled the

“At the time, we [four representatives] presented Zheng
Yunkang, the county party secretary, with three requests: reduce the
grain quota, distribute the 100,000 yuan to the affected production
teams, and transfer ownership of the calcium-carbide factory to those
teams. He asked us to write a report and sign it. After we returned
home, we gathered at Yang Biqing’s home and I reported on what happened
at the county seat. Teacher Xu pounded the table in anger and swore at
us, calling us traitors. He asked us to get the agreement of the eight
production teams before taking any important action in future,
especially in negotiations with any level of government.”

Later I found another appeal, written by Teacher Xu and dated April
22, that was stamped with the official seals of the eight production
teams. The letter detailed the suffering of the Shanyang peasants, how
the prefecture had helped the people tide over the disasters, how the
commune had misused the emergency-relief funds, and how the affected
groups had been forced to appeal to higher authorities for help. In
light of the recent case of Yuncheng prefecture in Shanxi province,6 four requests to the county government appeared at the end of the letter:

  1. Dispatch officials to conduct a detailed investigation, and ensure that prefecture policies are implemented;
  2. Assign
    officials to investigate the funds earmarked for both the resettlement
    related to the Dahe dam and the emergency relief after the 1982 floods,
    and make the results of that probe public;
  3. Investigate the finances of the calcium-carbide factory;
  4. Investigate official corruption and misuse of money and grain earmarked for relief, and assign legal responsibility.

Comparing the two letters, there are obvious differences between
them. The first one mentions “lifting the lid” on the factory’s
finances in a vague way, but places the emphasis on three other issues
and concentrates on the rights of the affected people. The second
letter, by contrast, focuses on “lifting the lid” and investigating
official wrongdoing, while mentioning only in passing that the 100,000
yuan should be distributed to its intended recipients.

The authors of the first letter also pledged that if the county
government saw fit to resolve their problems, they would make “no
further appeals to higher authorities and never break this promise.” By
contrast, the other group, led by Teacher Xu, continued to appeal to
higher authorities after submitting their letter to the county. On
April 24, for instance, Xu asked his followers to fire off letters to
the prefecture, the provincial party committee, the party’s central
commission for discipline inspection, the Letters and Visits Office of
the Central Committee, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. They put
their request this way: “We ask the central government to send an
honest and upright official to Shanyang, to help rescue the affected
people from this man-made disaster by bringing to justice corrupt
officials in the district and commune governments, or we people here
will remain unconvinced of the government’s sincerity in sorting out
our problems.”

Unintended consequences of bending the rules7

On April 26, 1984, Huang, deputy head of the prefecture’s planning
commission, Guo Taihua, governor of Yunyang county, and Liu Xingjian,
party secretary of the Dahe station, held a meeting at the dam site
that focused on three issues: the 100,000 yuan disbursed by the
prefecture in 1981, the ownership of the calcium-carbide factory and
the grain policy for the affected people. After listening to
presentations made by the county work team and local governments, Huang
said the priority had to be addressing the problems of the eight
production teams. He proposed that the 100,000 yuan be distributed and
the factory handed over to the production teams. After the meeting,
Huang held a private discussion with Guo Taihua, and the next morning
Guo made the following decisions public:

  1. The 100,000 yuan would go only to the eight production teams. An additional 10,000 yuan would go to Baiyang 16.
  2. Work
    on the calcium-carbide factory would continue, in an effort to make the
    plant a going concern. The production teams named above could either
    jointly own and operate the enterprise, or enter into a contract with
    others willing to run the business.
  3. Many factors were
    responsible for the inundation and erosion problems, which also
    affected areas outside of the eight production teams, so it was
    inappropriate to assign all the blame to the Dahe dam. In terms of the
    difficulties facing residents of the area, however, the prefecture
    decided to earmark 100,000 yuan to deal with the problems.
  4. Two million jin
    of grain would be waived from the grain quota that the nine production
    teams affected by the erosion were required to deliver to the state,
    though this arrangement was subject to final approval by prefecture

To appease the affected people and smooth over relations among all
the parties involved, the prefecture government took an approach that
basically accorded with the wishes of one of the groups of affected
people – the group that had focused on the compensation issue rather
than the corruption problem. The prefecture agreed to hand over an
additional 110,000 yuan to the eight production teams directly affected
by the erosion and to Baiyang 16. However, the decision to “bend the
rules” in this case proved to be counterproductive, and sowed the seeds
of further trouble down the road. The prefecture government had decided
to address the pressing matter of compensation and meet people’s
immediate needs, while failing to seek a comprehensive solution to the
problems, which would have included tackling the issue of official

Baiyang 16 was one of the Shanyang groups most affected by the Dahe
dam. Some of its fields had been requisitioned for construction of the
hydropower station and later it lost a great deal of farmland to the
erosion caused by the dam. The prefecture government earmarked 10,000
yuan to help address the group’s problems, but the sum was too little
to solve those. In addition, it was still unclear whether the group
would be exempted from agricultural taxes and the grain quota. So when
the prefecture government bent the rules, the people of Baiyang 16 felt
they had nothing to celebrate.

On the other side of the conflict, the leaders of the Dahe
hydropower station did not appreciate the complexity of the issue.
While the county felt the fee paid by the station for the land it
requisitioned had been too low, the station believed it had acted
correctly in the matter, and had later done the erosion-affected people
an enormous favour by handing over 110,000 yuan of dam revenue, at the
prefecture’s behest. And so when it set out to build more dormitories
for its staff, the station did not expect to run into any major

One day in May of 1984, when station workers were preparing to level
land on which to build the dormitories on the edge of the dam site, a
group of villagers from Baiyang 16 surrounded them and tried to halt
their work. With everybody eager to put in a word, the villagers
shouted in anger: “We’ve suffered enough! We will never allow you
people to do anything if you do not follow the proper procedures
[related to land requisition].” The station workers responded that they
would be going through the formalities while constructing the
dormitories. But the villagers didn’t buy that, and declared that they
would never allowed themselves to be cheated again. With popular
feeling running high, the station felt compelled to call the township
government for help. Having heard that the peasants of Baiyang 16 were
making a disturbance at the hydropower station, township officials felt
more pleased than concerned and, pleading a tight schedule, they
refused to rush to the station’s assistance.

As a result, the confrontation between the hydropower station and
the villagers lasted a whole morning. It was almost noon when Yang
Yongqian, head of Shanyang township, finally arrived, unhurriedly, at
the dam site. Station head Liu Xingjian took Yang to the scene of the
unrest. The villagers paid no attention to Yang’s admonition to
disperse, but continued to insist that before starting work on the
dormitories, the station should follow the proper land-requisition
procedures and pay the appropriate compensation. After discussing the
matter for a short while with the villagers, Yang informed Liu there
was nothing he could do, and reminded him that the station had better
follow the proper formalities. Yang departed in a hurry, and Liu had no
choice but to instruct the construction crew to halt work on the

The standoff over construction of the Dahe dam dormitories stemmed
directly from a land-requisition dispute with the Baiyang 16 peasants,
but the station held local governments responsible for the trouble. As
a construction and production unit, the station found it difficult to
deal with the peasants, who were poorly educated and acted like a
common herd without a leader. Construction of the dam brought benefits
to local communities, such as roads, bridges and electricity. While the
dam also brought problems, such as the inundation and erosion of
farmland, the station did its best to deal with those by providing
compensation to the affected people. The station felt, however, that
local governments at the district and township levels did a poor job of
controlling the masses. Moreover, local governments had not only
diverted part of the funds earmarked for the resettlement scheme, but
they had also repeatedly tried to transfer their problems with the
affected groups onto the Dahe station.

In 1980, when peasants from the erosion zone gathered at the station
and ate at its canteen for the first time, the station was well aware
that the commune had incited the masses to cause the disturbance. In a
moment of desperation, station officials had shown the protesters a
document that showed the prefecture had earmarked 300,000 yuan for
Shanyang in 1978. From then on, the peasants firmly believed that local
governments had pocketed the money that should have gone to them. In
1982, when the villagers made up their mind to accuse local cadres of
corruption, the station even helped them type up their appeals. As a
result, station officials were dismayed that the Baiyang 16 peasants
were now taking such a fierce stand on the land-requisition issue. And
they resented the attitude of local cadres, who seemed to gloat over
the station’s troubles with the peasants. The station was looking for a
way to get back at district and township officials, and a heaven-sent
opportunity soon arose.

On May 10, 1984, Yunyang county held a conference on the safe use of
electrical power, and announced a campaign for “one trouble-free month
of electricity use” that was due to commence at the end of May. On June
5, an accident occurred on the Shanyang line, which resulted in a
short-circuit and the failure of a main transformer at the Dahe
station. Shortly after the accident, the station decided to halt the
power supply to Shanyang, and then informed the township that it would
have to undertake a thorough repair and upgrading of its circuitry
before power would be restored.

Local officials felt it was unfair to expect them to assume full
responsibility for the accident, since the system had been poorly
constructed and maintained by the station before the line was
transferred to Shanyang in May of 1982. Problems on the line after the
handover had led to two dozen accidents between August 1983 and June
1984. With previous accidents, the station and local governments had
made a joint effort to repair the problem, and any power outages did
not last long. This time, however, local governments interpreted the
station’s intransigence as being linked to the land-requisition dispute
and, specifically, to local officials’ failure to negotiate a deal
between the station and the peasants.

On the same day the station halted their power supply, Shanyang
district officials convened an emergency meeting. Afterward, district
head Zuo Wengui announced five measures:

  1. Station workers’ children attending Shanyang High School would be expelled;
  2. The district hospital would no longer treat patients who worked at the station;
  3. The district grain station would halt all supplies of grain and oil destined for the station;
  4. The district post office would suspend phone service to the station;
  5. Teachers
    at Liuping Primary School who were related to workers at the station
    would be transferred to teaching posts in remote areas.

Having heard this news, the hydro station immediately reported the
situation to the prefecture government. Yu, the prefecture’s
vice-commissioner in charge of the industry sector, was extremely
unhappy and said he would have a word with Yunyang county officials and
try to get them to lean on the district government to revoke the orders.

Despair spreads downstream

On June 13, 1984, a massive rainstorm hit Shanyang. Watching the
reservoir water level rise rapidly, Dahe hydropower station head Liu
Xingjian called the township government and said he was shocked at what
he was seeing. The impending flood, he said, looked as dangerous as the
1982 disaster.

Without giving local people any advance warning, Liu decided to
lower the reservoir level by opening the dam’s sluice gates. This
engulfed the river valley below the dam in a vast body of water,
submerging more than 3,000 mu
of cropland. Corn that was close to being harvested was completely
ruined. Peasants, with tears in their eyes, raced to complain to
village cadres, who in turn vented their anger at the township and
district levels. But when Shanyang township officials reported the
disaster to higher authorities, the prefecture government turned a deaf

Receiving no significant response from the various levels of
government, local people had no choice but to take the traditional
approach in coping with a desperate situation and head for the hydro
station to create a disturbance, as they had back in April 1980. An
appeal submitted by station workers to the county government on June 26
described what happened next:

“From June 14 to 17, led by village heads and party
secretaries, more than 300 people from the downstream area below the
dam came to the hydropower station and kept pestering the station
leaders. Peasants from Baiyang and Liuping villages were persuaded to
stop the disturbances, but about 50 peasants from Xinhua and Bolin
villages dashed around wildly, behaving disgracefully. They caused
disturbances for several days and nights, and station staff had great
difficulty doing their jobs. At noon on June 17, a group of peasants
ignored security staff and overran the staff canteen. They dragged the
cooks away and ate up all the food that had been prepared for the more
than 100 station employees.

“From June 26 onward, several dozen peasants came to the station and
caused trouble almost every day. They demanded that station leaders
sign a document they had prepared and threatened that if they refused
to sign, they would mobilize more villagers and kidnap the station
leaders. They put it this way in their document: ‘The Dahe hydropower
station is 100 times more merciless than the devastating floods. The
dam is more cruel and more violent than the devil, and it determines
whether local people live or die. We will not retreat. We have made up
our mind to perish along with the dam.'”

The villagers involved in the previous disturbance at the dam, in
1980, were from the erosion zone. This time, the protesters were from
Xinhua and Bolin, villages far downstream of the dam, beyond the
officially designated erosion zone. They were unhappy that villagers in
the erosion zone were considered disaster victims eligible for
government compensation. By contrast, the peasants of Xinhua and Bolin
had received nothing for their losses caused by the floods that had
become more devastating in frequency and intensity since the
construction of the Dahe dam. The hydro station believed that while it
bore responsibility for the erosion near the dam, villages as far away
as Xinhua and Bolin were not in the affected zone and so were no
concern of theirs. The Xinhua and Bolin villagers were upset about
being treated differently, when they too were suffering terribly.

The two villages were trying to secure a greater share of the
100,000 yuan that was supposed to go to villages outside of the eight
groups in the erosion zone. When the relationship between the local
governments and the station had become strained, the district and
township had signalled that villages that were most active in fighting
the station would get the biggest slice of the pie. And so Xinhua and
Bolin villages were out in front now, doing their best to cause mayhem
at the station.

As the table below shows, the local governments at the district and
township levels repaid the two villages for their role in struggling
against the Dahe station. Xinhua village in particular was rewarded
handsomely for its efforts, receiving close to half the 100,000 yuan.

Village Sum disbursed (yuan)
Xinhua 49,506
Bolin 15,664
Tangfang 10,511
Baiyang 10,756
Mingyue 2,828

Disunity among the officials

Local cadres at the district and township levels felt as if they
were being squeezed from above and below. The peasants were trying to
get somebody to take responsibility for their poverty and misery, and
were accusing the cadres of embezzling funds earmarked for
resettlement. At the same time, the officials were feeling pressure
from the prefecture government, which was displeased with the local
cadres’ failure to work out a land-requisition deal and with the five
measures the district had proposed to make life difficult for hydro
station employees. The prefecture was frustrated by the local
government’s disruptive impact on the dam’s operations, given that the
hydro station was an important source of revenue for the prefecture.

In this situation, the district and township governments decided to
gain the upper hand by striking first: to incite the affected peasants
to create a disturbance at the hydro station on the one hand, and to
report to the central government directly by bypassing the immediate
leadership on the other hand. The day after the incident at the Dahe
station, the government of Shanyang township sent a letter to the party
central committee’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection,
lodging a complaint against the prefecture government on issues such as
land requisition, power supply and the hardships experienced by the
affected people.

This was the first time since the dam was completed in late 1970
that the local governments had bypassed the immediate leadership to
file a complaint in the name of grassroots organizations. By venting
these grievances, the local governments hoped to win the sympathy of
the central government and to have the prefecture come under criticism
for its “bureaucratism.”

Tailor Wang enters the fray

Wang Xueping, a tailor who had set up his stall outside the
calcium-carbide factory, had managed to persuade the Baiyang and
Liuping villagers to stop causing trouble at the Dahe station. Wang
recalled how he convinced the villagers to call off their action:

“I said they had better report their problems to higher
authorities through the proper channels and in a disciplined manner. I
said it was wrong and illegal for them to be creating a disturbance in
this way. I was doing my sewing at that spot, so I had a lot of
opportunity to talk with them about the hows and whys of what they were
doing. And I said, ‘Just don’t do it the way you’re doing it.'”

Tailor Wang went on to recount how he had become involved in the villagers’ appeals:

“I had been sewing clothes near the factory since 1984. I
saw the peasants going back and forth across the bridge [leading to the
Dahe station] almost every day. So I asked them why they were going
there, and they said: ‘To fill our stomachs.’ The local cadres didn’t
want to fix their problems and had advised them to go to the station
for help. So the peasants were going off to make trouble at the
station. But I said this wasn’t a good way to solve their problems. The
peasants listened to me carefully. They trusted me because of my
experience. They knew I had made a living since a young age, wandering
from place to place. They believed I was more experienced and
knowledgeable than they were, so they asked me to take part in the
appeals. At first, I didn’t intend to become involved, but the
production team heads and many other people asked me to join them. They
particularly liked the fact that I was good at making friends and
negotiating with all sorts of different people. And it’s true that I’ve
always been happy to help others. So they said, ‘We really hope you can
give us a hand on this issue.'”

Chatting with Tailor Wang, I learned that he had been born into a
noble family in Yunyang. His grandfather was a well-known doctor and
lawyer in the county seat, and his family had moved to Shanyang to
escape the fighting during the war with the Japanese. Tailor Wang’s
father was not well educated but was gifted in many ways, and
particularly good at calligraphy. Tailor Wang was not permitted to
attend junior high school or join the army because of his family’s
political background. At the age of 11, he began roaming from place to
place, picking up work as a porter, busboy, tailor and so forth. He was
a brilliant conversationalist, adept at friendship, and also very loyal
to his friends. As a result of his family background and personal
experiences, Tailor Wang was a steady, reliable and courageous man. He
displayed these traits even before he became involved in the appeals.
He sensed danger in the villagers’ plan to cause trouble at the
station, and felt that the crux of their problems – and the solution to
their plight – lay with local governments rather than the Dahe station.
He pointed out the possibility of landing local cadres in hot water by
forcing an official admission of the problems with the calcium-carbide

Tailor Wang also recalled his experience of working as a labourer at the factory for a short period of time:

“We young men from five production teams affected by the
dam were required to work on the construction of the factory. We did
heavy, dirty work such as transporting stones and bricks. But after the
factory was completed, none of us was employed there. They [district
and township officials] arranged jobs for their own relatives and
friends at the factory. Several years later, we went to the factory
asking for jobs but the township cadres drove us away with their fists.
We became frightened and ran away.”

Tailor Wang told me he was well aware of the risks involved in confronting officials:

“My grandmother told me that accusing officials of
wrongdoing was as dangerous as beating a tiger and that it would bring
enormous trouble to the family. She advised me never to do this, and I
always bore her words in mind. So when I heard the peasants talking
about making a disturbance, I told them again and again that it was no
joke and that I was really scared.”

Tailor Wang said that if you take on a tiger and it is not killed,
you can get seriously hurt. Wang also realized that only by being well
organized could the peasants bring corrupt officials to justice,
protect the rights and interests of the affected people, and guarantee
the personal safety of the protest leaders.

Tailor Wang enjoyed several advantages that propelled him to the
forefront of the struggle. He was among the peasants affected by the
Dahe dam, but local cadres had a hard time pinning anything on him
because he had worked for such a long time as an itinerant labourer
outside of Shanyang. He had the energy and also the time to become
involved in the struggle. Moreover, Wang was able to do what Teacher Xu
could not do: to work as a conductor at the front of the stage. Tailor
Wang became a firm supporter of Teacher Xu, and both men shared the
goal of seeing corrupt officials punished for their wrongdoing. Tailor
Wang’s appearance on the scene created the distinction between front
and back stages: He would work at the front, while Teacher Xu was busy
in the background.8


1 The expression jie gai zi,
lift the lid, has been used in post-1949 political movements to
describe the determination of higher authorities to investigate and
reveal problems with subordinate governments.

2 After the land reform of the
late 1940s and early 1950s, the central government viewed sending work
teams to the countryside as an institutionalized means of finding out
what was happening in the countryside. The work team was expected not
only to clarify and solve problems in the rural communities to which it
was sent, but also to pay close attention to the political atmosphere.
A work team could play four different roles, though which one it
actually played would depend on the specific conditions. First, the
investigator – the representative of the state, sent to research events
in rural communities. Second, the liberator – through its
investigations, to get to the bottom of things, identify “friend and
foe,” right wrongs and free the peasants from local oppressors. Third,
the educator – through “ideological education,” to drive a wedge
between the masses and small groups of troublemakers. Fourth, the
protector – while researching local problems, the work team would
protect local cadres, who play a vital role in the operation of the
state machinery at the grassroots level.

3 By the late 1980s, higher
authorities were encouraging subordinate levels of government to
implement policies “flexibly” in order to push ahead with the economic
reforms. But it was also possible for these lower-level officials to
take advantage of the situation for personal gain, For example, the
Shanyang township and district governments wanted to build the
calcium-carbide factory not in the interests of the affected groups,
but for income-generation purposes (see A. Krueger, “The Political
Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society,” American Economic Review, 1974;
C. Rowley et al., The Political Economy of Rent-Seeking,
1988). It was possible for high-level authorities to tolerate such
activities and even to be reluctant to expose their existence. For the
affected people, however, it was hard to accept this “flexible”
approach when it created a threat to their own interests. Thus it could
happen that they would press for things to be done strictly in
accordance with the higher authorities’ policies and regulations.

4 China declared an end to the
people’s commune system in 1984. The old system, with its hierarchy of
people’s commune, production brigade and production team, was replaced
by the new one of township/town, village and group.

5 Bending the rules (kai kou zi) and lifting the lid (jie gai zi)
are both important means employed by the government to deal with
conflicts among the people that could cause social instability and even
undermine the authority of the central government. Bending the rules
aims to show care and concern toward a certain group in order to reduce
the severity of a conflict, while lifting the lid and punishing
officials for wrongdoing is used as a warning to others (“execute one
to warn 100”).

6 From March 1983 to January
1984, a work team from the central inspection and discipline committee
of the Communist Party investigated problems in Yuncheng prefecture,
Shanxi province, and arrested 42 officials on various charges. The work
team also reorganized the leadership of Yuncheng prefecture, a move
applauded by local people.

7 From 1984 onward, as an
arbitrator between the peasants affected by the Dahe dam and local
governments, the prefecture faced the dilemma of whether to “lift the
lid” on official wrongdoing (jie gai zi) or deal coercively with the complainants (ba ding zi).
The former approach would put the prefecture on the peasants’ side, as
they investigated and took a tough stance on any misuse of resettlement
funds. This would damage local cadres politically, intensify the
conflict within the government bureaucracy and generally worsen the
situation. On the other hand, if the latter approach were taken, the
prefecture would have to crack down on the leaders who organized the
collective actions, and accuse them of “inciting the masses to cause
trouble.” On the surface, this would appear to bring the situation
under control, but it could also spark stronger popular feelings of
dissatisfaction and serve to worsen the relationship between the
peasants and the state. If the government employs “strong weapons” to
deal with a complex developing situation, it runs the risk of
exacerbating a conflict and disrupting the new development-orientated
economic order. The reality is that the state needs to consolidate an
atmosphere of unity and stability but is at the same time challenged by
all the accumulated “problems left over from history.” Therefore, one
of the most important principles in dealing with the problems is to
address the peasants’ problems while taking care not to undermine local
cadres’ drive and enthusiasm.

In these circumstances, bending the rules (kai kou zi)
became an effective means of balancing the situation: demonstrating the
government’s warm-hearted concern for the affected people on the one
hand, and letting local cadres walk away from the troubles untarnished
and with their heads held high, on the other. However, the difficulty
with “bending the rules” lies in how to avoid producing a new sense of
injustice among those who have not benefited from the benevolent

8 In other circumstances, Teacher
Xu would have been a perfect person to be out at the front of the
stage. But on several counts he was unsuitable for the role of public
organizer of the collective actions. For one thing, although his
family’s fields were threatened by the dam-induced erosion, his income
was not dependent on them (he was a primary-school teacher with a
stable salary) and so he was not, strictly speaking, a member of the
afflicted group. He also had to fulfill his duties as a teacher, and so
his time was not all that flexible. Finally, and most importantly,
Teacher Xu had been an activist in the Cultural Revolution and so his
own “problems left over from history” could give local cadres who were
eager to go after him an excuse to do so. For all these reasons, the
best role for him to play was that of behind-the-scenes mastermind.

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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