Three Gorges Probe

The Story of the Dahe Dam: Chapter 7

Ying Xing
March 2, 2005


Chapter 7: The conflict heats up

On October 28, 1984, the head of Shanyang township, Yang Yongquan,
was riding his bike over the bridge leading to the Dahe station when
his way was suddenly blocked by a man in his 60s. Wang Yongxu began
begging Yang to hand over the money earmarked for resettlement to the
intended beneficiaries, such as himself. Yang became annoyed and tried
to get away from the peasant, who persisted in blocking his path. Yang
got off his bike and pushed Wang in the effort to get past him. Wang
was frail, lost his balance and fell to the ground. Many villagers
witnessed the encounter and rushed to the elderly man’s assistance.
They surrounded Yang, berating him. Yang, the township leader, ended up
abandoning his bike and fleeing the scene on foot.

This spontaneous incident occurred against the backdrop of
heightened tensions in Shanyang. To strengthen their case, petition
organizers cited in an appeal document this “physical assault” on Wang
as an example of local cadres’ lack of respect for the elderly and
their abuse of the people whose lives had been harmed by the dam. The
township government, meanwhile, said the incident was the result of the
deliberate manipulation of local people by the elite of the affected
people, that they were attempting to stir up trouble between local
officials and the masses. So officials also mentioned the incident in
their own documents submitted to higher levels.

By early 1985, the county government, which had tried to distance
itself from the resettlement problems, began to come into direct
conflict with the petition organizers. On April 15 of that year, a work
team headed by Wang Jintang, the vice-governor of Yunyang, returned to
Shanyang to look into the diversion of funds by local cadres, and to
work out how to get the calcium-carbide factory up and running again.

During the investigation, which continued for more than 40 days, a
heated dispute arose over the factory’s financial affairs and whether
it should resume production. At a meeting attended by more than 300
local people, Vice-Governor Wang criticized the leaders of the former
Shanyang commune for diverting resettlement funds to other uses. After
announcing additional relief of 9,000 yuan for the affected zone in
Shanyang, Wang stressed that the government could help resolve the
problems and that resuming production at the factory was part of the

But his words did not have the desired effect, and villagers
continued to insist that the first priority had to be a thorough
inspection of factory accounts — and that the audit should be
supervised by local people. They also wanted a 70,600-yuan bank loan
that had been taken out to build the factory to be forgiven before
production resumed. The work team could not accept these demands, so
Vice-Governor Wang and his team left Shanyang having made little
headway on the factory issue.

The county government was becoming frustrated and worried about the
deadlock over the factory issue. The affected groups wanted to assume
ownership of the factory but to leave its debts in the hands of the
township government. If this was allowed to happen, the township
government would become unworkable. In fact, while the work team was in
Shanyang, the township government threatened to resign if something was
not done about Teacher Xu. And now that the elite of the affected
people were standing their ground and refusing to continue
negotiations, the county government decided to punish certain “bad
elements” who were seen to be driving a wedge between the masses and
the government.

One of those bad elements was Teacher Xu. In May of 1985, the county
education bureau decided to transfer him to a primary school in Shatu
district, a remote area 100 kilometres from Shanyang. Officials from
the education bureau and the party committee’s propaganda department
told him the move would be good for him. “It will get you out of a
predicament. You’ll be so far away that nobody will bother you any
more.” Teacher Xu ignored the order to move, and was suspended without
pay soon afterward.

One evening, Teacher Xu and Tailor Wang heard a rumour that they
were about to be detained for “inciting the masses to make trouble” the
previous year. They set out immediately for the provincial capital to
seek protection from higher authorities, and although they were unable
to arrange a meeting with officials there, they did manage to avoid
arrest. In the meantime, provincial authorities sent a letter to
prefecture officials, urging them to expedite the handling of the
resettlement problems, and not to retaliate against petitioners who
submitted appeals to higher authorities.

The villagers of Shanyang no longer expected anything from the
county government, but did hold out hope that high-ranking officials in
far-off places, especially those in Beijing, would take care of them.
They truly believed that their beloved top leaders were deeply
concerned about their plight. Those leaders had not shown up yet in
person to help them only because they were so busy with all the affairs
of state, but they would come one day to rescue them from their misery.
The villagers felt certain that the top leaders’ hearts and theirs beat
as one, and that local officials were the problem as they tried to come
between them.1

Dong Guoguang arrives on the scene

One day, the deputy commissioner of the prefecture and his work team
arrived in Shanyang to investigate the situation. Local people liked
what they saw: Here was a man who acted very much like the beloved
leaders of their dreams. Unlike most officials, who avoided contact
with ordinary people and seemed only interested in listening to the
reports of local cadres, Dong Guoguang was an amiable, approachable man
who talked with ordinary people in a straightforward manner. He
conducted his own on-the-spot investigations and also asked his team
members to visit petitioners’ homes to get a sense of their living
conditions. The villagers liked his style, and regarded him as honest
and upright.

Coming from a peasant background himself, Dong was saddened by the
fact that so many households were suffering a shortage of grain and
that a great many problems with the Dahe resettlement operation
remained unresolved. He genuinely tried to sort things out. One of the
proposals he put forward was to give additional compensation to three
downstream groups for their losses in the 1982 floods, if they would
agree to give up their claims to part-ownership of the factory. He
explained his decision to me:

“I felt it was important to make a clear distinction
between the zone affected by the Dahe dam and the area affected by
natural floods alone. The provincial water conservancy institute had
calculated that the force of the water discharged from the Dahe
reservoir would dissipate at about 1,200 metres downstream of the dam.
In other words, the river valley below that point was not affected by
the water discharges, and so I felt it was wrong to blame the Dahe
station for the scouring problem in that section.”

In theory, this made some sense. But in reality it was very
difficult to arrive at an accurate calculation of the impacts of the
discharged water. Moreover, the conflict between electricity generation
and flood control made things much more complicated. If the hydropower
station was most concerned about minimizing the scouring below the dam,
it would undertake controlled releases of water to make room for
floodwater in the reservoir. Then, the controlled release of the
floodwater itself would minimize erosion below the dam, even in the
event of floods the size of the 1982 inundation.

However, if the station sought to take advantage of the increased
energy in floodwater, it would operate in a different way in order to
generate as much hydropower as possible. The zone affected by the water
discharged from the dam in that case would be much bigger. In most
circumstances, the Dahe hydropower station would prefer to operate the
reservoir along those lines. After all, the station was one of the
prefecture’s main sources of revenue, and the dam had more difficulty
generating electricity in the dry season than in the flood season.

Local people knew little about the science behind the erosion-zone
calculations, but they did sense from experience that flooding below
the dam had become worse, both in degree and frequency, since the dam
was built. But for prefecture officials, the concept of a defined zone
affected by the scouring did help them to categorize the affected
people into upstream and downstream groups, which from then on were
completely divided as a result. The prefecture was pleased with the
work of Commissioner Dong and his team, and decided to station them in
the Dahe dam area to try to come to grips with all of the resettlement
operation’s leftover problems.

A second family-planning incident

Prefecture officials, meanwhile, adopted an ambivalent attitude
toward the county’s attempt to punish Teacher Xu by transferring him to
a remote area. When Xu refused to move, the county, lacking the
prefecture’s strong support, had to back down and rescind the order. Xu
was allowed to resume his teaching duties. But he was also aware that
local officials were unlikely to let him escape punishment altogether,
and henceforth could be expected to make life difficult for him.

In November 1985, the Shanyang district government organized work
teams to tour the townships to check that birth-control policies and
family-planning quotas were being followed, and to collect fines from
people who broke the rules. The campaign revived painful memories for
Teacher Xu and his wife, and he refused to participate in it in any
way. District and township officials decided to reinforce the
family-planning work team when it came time for it to visit Xu’s
village of Liuping. When the 12-member team entered the village on
November 21, unrest was already brewing. The team found Xu’s house
tightly locked and nobody home. When they asked neighbours where Xu and
his wife had gone, two women retorted: “Let’s ask you the questions!”
Dozens of villagers began to gather, and soon the work team was
surrounded by a noisy, scolding crowd. Some people turned up carrying
hammers and screwdrivers. Amid the hubbub, the work team attempted to
ask questions about birth-control matters, but the villagers paid no
attention and continued to hurl abuse.

Teacher Xu’s wife, Du Huixun, appeared and, seeing the crowd,
quietly suggested to several people that they should go to other
villages, such as Baiyang and Mingyue, to round up reinforcements. Half
an hour later, more than 300 people were streaming in to Liuping from
four other villages. The work team was encircled, with women and
children spitting at them and throwing clumps of earth. The crowd
prevented the work team from leaving, and insisted it produce a written
guarantee that the government would never again go after Teacher Xu.
After almost three hours, Wu Qixian, the chief organizer of the ruckus,
told the work team: “Why did you come here? We’ll let you go if you
make that perfectly clear. We’re here to protect Xu Shaorong. He speaks
up for us, and writes petitions and appeals on our behalf. We won’t let
you hit back at him.” And then, Wu yelled to the crowd, “Let them go!”
Wu and his people drove the work team away.

After reviewing the documents on this incident, I found no evidence
that the district government had deliberately set out to punish Teacher
Xu in this instance, but that the villagers on whose behalf he was
fighting had every reason to link the two issues. In contrast with Xu’s
first run-in with family-planning officials, which culminated in the
forced sterilization of his wife, local people were now sympathetic to
him because by now he had done so much for them.2
At the end of the day, one thing was certain: This second family
planning-related incident served to further widen the gulf between the
affected groups and local governments.

How had the problems become so serious?

In December 1985, the county party committee convened a meeting to
discuss how the problems related to the Dahe dam had become so serious,
and how best to resolve them. Among those who spoke at the meeting was
the chairman of the county people’s congress. According to a written
summary of the conference, he said:

“There are indeed many leftover problems related to the
Dahe dam resettlement, and I don’t feel confident that we will be able
to completely resolve them all. The project went ahead in great haste,
even before some of the engineering design work was finished. Moreover,
the project has never to this day been inspected and approved by the
province. At the very start, we took into account the submersion issue
in the upstream area behind the dam but ignored the scouring problem in
the region below the dam. We also failed to consider the higher water
levels caused by the backwater effect in the upstream area, in
particular, in Bailong county’s Kaixi township. Thus, we have to own up
to these ‘problems left over from history.’

“As for the compensation issue, the Dahe hydropower station
distributed the resettlement funds to the townships (or, more
precisely, to the communes) rather than to the villages, let alone to
individual households. The townships diverted some of the funds to
other uses, and then distributed the remainder to villages rather than
to households. The villages, in turn, did as the townships had done,
and diverted some of the money. It’s true that villagers received only
a fraction of the compensation money they were due.

“We have to strengthen the leadership at the district and township
level. We have to arrive at a unified understanding of the issues, and
then back up the lower levels of government so they can do a better job
of tackling these problems. Finally, we need to send a work team down
to the grassroots level to gain the trust of the masses and obtain more
accurate and reliable information from them. We have to address the
actual, existing problems. For example, we should distribute the money
to the affected people in a more direct way. I disagree with the
approach that favours rounding up the ‘ringleaders’ first and resolving
the problems that have arisen second. We need to win over and guide the
masses, including a recalcitrant minority, and only then to punish a
few individuals according to the law.”

The consensus reached at the meeting was in line with the above
remarks. It was recognized that one of the main ways to win over the
masses was to ensure that the problems of the dam-affected people were
finally addressed. It was also agreed that lower levels of government,
the district and the township, had to be given more support, and that
the higher level — the prefecture — should be asked to shoulder more of
the responsibility for dealing with the resettlement problems. There
was some debate about whether the “ringleaders” should be punished as a
first step, and Teacher Xu was identified as one of the black sheep.
While some participants thought a quick crackdown was in order, the
majority felt the people’s problems should be addressed first — but
nobody voiced any opposition to the idea of gathering more evidence
against the bad elements for future reference.

‘Throw his car into the river!’

Commissioner Dong arrived in Yunyang county later that same day. Two
days later, accompanied by Governor Guo Taihua, he and his new work
team went to Shanyang. Several district and township cadres were
invited to take part so it became a real joint work team consisting of
the four levels of local government: prefecture, county, district and

At a mass assembly on December 9, Governor Guo said: “For a long
time, a small number of people have incited a section of the masses to
appeal to higher authorities in Shanyang, accusing local cadres of
embezzling the funds earmarked for the resettlement scheme. But there
is no evidence of this, and it is terribly wrong for some individuals
to accuse local cadres of corruption in the absence of any evidence.”
Governor Guo also made the point that while the joint work team would
focus on resolving the resettlement problems, it would also gather
material on anyone who tried to disrupt the team’s work. Commissioner
Dong also made a brief speech, focusing on the factory issue. If
production restarted at the factory, he said, it would bring many
benefits to the affected people, who had suffered so much hardship.

One of the most troublesome issues the work team had to grapple with
was that of the factory accounts. Zhu Yundun, the worried engineer,
raised questions about some dubious receipts in which the financial
record was incomplete or the expense was unclear — for instance, a
3,000-yuan “entertainment allowance.” But Commissioner Dong said: “Old
Zhu, you don’t understand, and I think you’d better go home.” Thus, Zhu
was asked to return to the prefecture and stay out of further
involvement in the resettlement mess.

It’s fair to say that Zhu knew a lot about the practice — but very
little about the politics — of auditing accounts. Commissioner Dong had
worked at the grassroots level for long enough to be well aware that
local cadres sometimes did questionable things with money, but he
didn’t view such behaviour as entirely unforgivable. If financial
impropriety were to be revealed, it could cause great harm to the
initiative of local cadres and their ability to carry out their work in

At the same time, Dong wasn’t at all sure about the wisdom of
cracking down hard on the elite of the affected people. His approach
was to try to cut both sides some slack in order to reduce the tensions
between them and ease the conflict. He wanted to patch up quarrels and
reconcile the parties, and didn’t like to see any individuals, be they
local cadres or ordinary residents, hurt because of the resettlement
operation. For the elite of the affected people, however, their top
priority was to press for the removal of corrupt officials, which was
the best way to guarantee their own personal safety.

Feng Mingyue, an engineer at the prefecture’s hydropower bureau,
related the following story, which illustrates Commissioner Dong’s
softly-softly approach:

“At the end of 1985, a meeting was held in the Dahe
station’s conference room, attended by the members of the joint work
team, the station directors and leaders from the four levels of local
government [prefecture, county, district and township]. Commissioner
Dong and myself made it clear at the meeting that Mingyue village was
not going to be considered part of the zone affected by the scouring
problem, so the villagers there would not be eligible for the
compensation package offered to the upstream groups.

“After the meeting, I saw Governor Wang talking to two cadres from
Mingyue village outside the conference room. Most of the cars carrying
officials who had attended the meeting headed straight for Shanyang,
but Commissioner Dong’s car, in which I was also riding, went in
another direction, toward Mingyue. As our car was arriving in Mingyue,
several handcarts waiting by the roadside suddenly blocked the traffic.
A large number of peasants soon surrounded Commissioner Dong, demanding
that he resolve the erosion problem. The incident appeared to have been
planned in advance. First, dozens of elderly men and women went down on
their knees before the commissioner, crying out and holding onto his
leg. Then somebody shouted, ‘Throw his car into the river!’ But
Commissioner Dong remained calm, even joking with the crowd: ‘Look,
it’s coming up to the [Chinese] New Year and you clearly don’t want me
to leave. So I’d be happy to go to your homes to celebrate Spring
Festival with you. I don’t think you’d boil me for dinner!”
(Commissioner Dong confirmed this story when I spoke with him at a
later date.)

The road blocked with handcarts, old people throwing themselves at
the commissioner’s feet, the shouts to throw his car into the river —
popular feeling was running high, but it also appeared the event had
been prearranged. It’s not at all clear who was behind it, but one
thing is certain: Neither Teacher Xu nor Tailor Wang had anything to do
with it.

Despite facing dozens of old peasants down on their knees before
him, Commissioner Dong kept his cool, and managed to grit his teeth and
not “bend the rules.” If he had made a concession at this point, a
flood of demands would have followed. In other words, knocking a small
hole in the side of the dyke to let a bit of water through (kai kou zi)
could have led to a torrent that would cause its collapse. And so
Commissioner Dong refused to comment on whether Mingyue village should
be included in the erosion zone, and said nothing at all on the issue
until local cadres — who were rather slow in arriving — helped extract
him from the awkward situation. The rumour about “the people in
Shanyang who threw the commissioner’s car into the river” raced around
the county and then the prefecture as a whole. And although Teacher Xu
and Tailor Wang had not been involved in the incident, its excesses
provided officials with more ammunition to label the elite of the
affected people as “bad elements.”

Three new principles

The work team wrapped up the Shanyang audit by the end of 1985,
concluding in a formal document, “Evidence of corruption or
embezzlement has not yet been discovered among district or township
The team now shifted its focus to Xunlu township. In Shanyang, the
heart of the matter had been whether local cadres embezzled funds
earmarked for resettlement. In Xunlu, however, the big challenge facing
the work team was how to deal with the hardship being suffered by a
large number of people in 50 groups affected by the Dahe dam. On
December 14, Commissioner Dong convened a meeting with the work-team
leaders, along with Guo Taihua, governor of Yunyang, his deputy Wang
Jintang, and Liu Liangji, vice-secretary of Yunyang. After intensive
discussion, it was agreed that grain would be distributed to needy
households in 31 of the 50 groups, so that everyone had at least 360 jinof grain a year.

“This year, the balance of the funds earmarked for
resettlement will be used to buy the grain for the affected households.
From next year on, the money to purchase the grain allowance will come
out of the profits earned by the power supply station that Xunlu
township constructed with funds intended for the resettlement schemes.
The 19 other groups, which have suffered only minor losses caused by
the Dahe dam, will not be eligible for compensation, thus teaching the
people to make allowances for the state’s difficulties.”

This new compensation policy was not simply a repeat of the
countless previous instances of “rule bending,” but represented a real
departure from past practice. Commissioner Dong had finally found an
effective formula for tackling the resettlement problems that had
evaded resolution for so long. Three principles lay at the heart of the
new policy:

Principle 1: Affected people should receive compensation directly

All funds earmarked for the resettlement scheme must be distributed
directly to the affected people, with none of the money spent in other
ways in the name of regional development. When affected groups fail to
benefit from a relocation program, or even become poorer after
displacement, they will appeal for help from the unit that took over
their land, or to higher authorities. And so in the case of Xunlu, it
was decided that funds would no longer be disbursed according to the
hierarchy of prefecture, county, township, village, group and, finally,
affected households. Instead, in an effort to reduce and even eliminate
the disappearance of funds as they moved down through the
administrative hierarchy, the money was to go directly to households.
When affected groups benefit directly from their resettlement, they
feel better disposed toward the project that has forced their
relocation. This is one of the chief ways to staunch the torrent of
appeals to higher authorities.

Principle 2: Resettlement funds should not be disbursed in one lump sum, but little by little in a steady flow

Governments are inclined to try and solve leftover problems in one
fell swoop with a one-time input of a large amount of money, but this
is far from an effective approach. The affected people will tend to
pursue their appeals once they manage to achieve one success. And so in
Xunlu, the work team decided instead to disburse the funds directly to
the masses, little by little, without letup, in a steady stream over
many years. Grain is a lifeline for the peasants, and so the work team
decided on a grain subsidy, to ensure that at least that basic need was
met. Beyond that, if the affected people nurtured the dream of becoming
rich, they would have to work toward that themselves through factory
work or “sideline production.” Throwing “one lump sum” at a problem
could not guarantee a long period of peace and stability, whereas
disbursing funds in a constant trickle could curb the momentum of the

Principle 3: The various affected groups should be treated differently, and not as one undifferentiated mass

The disturbances related to the Dahe dam became a real headache for
the governments and the dam project authority because of the large
number of people involved. The previous approach had been to try and
treat everyone as equally as possible, and to distribute resettlement
funds as equitably as possible, based on average amounts of farmland or
numbers of affected people. In most cases, the least affected groups
got much more than they should have, while the most affected people
received too little to solve their problems. As a result, the more
money the government allocated, the more trouble was created.

In Xunlu, the work team put the areas affected by the Dahe reservoir
into three categories – serious, moderate and light – according to the
relative severity of the flooding caused by the reservoir. In the
“serious” category, a grain allowance ranging from 30 jin to 240 jin
per capita would be distributed according to the degree of inundation
and property loss. However, no grain allowance was set aside for the
two other categories, encouraging the peasants there to recover any
losses through their own efforts and to “make allowance for the state’s

Disbursing the resettlement funds in a small, steady stream in this
way ensures people’s basic survival, and allows the government to stop
having to “bend the rules” again and again in response to people’s
demands. However, implementation of this third principle, of treating
the various affected groups in different ways, proved complex and
problematic. In practice, it’s difficult to persuade people who
suffered less loss than others to give up their own demands for
compensation. In Xunlu township, the 19 groups that were not entitled
to the grain allowance were unhappy with the policy and expressed their
dissatisfaction vociferously. In these circumstances, the work team was
forced to adjust the original plan and distribute a total grain
allowance of 456,000 jin
among all the 50 groups. Nevertheless, the new policy proved a success
as a whole, and the principles have been developed and improved on in
later resettlement practice.

In light of the experience in Xunlu, the Shanyang township
government submitted a similar report to the county, focusing on the
grain-ration issue. The township proposed a total grain allowance of
790,000, in which 340,000 jinwould go to 11 groups in the erosion zone and 450,000 jin
to 18 other groups deemed also to have been affected by the scouring
problem. Township officials knew the prefecture would never approve the
requested amount, but hoped it would not be reduced by too much, and
would still be acceptable. By contrast, the joint work team recommended
that a much smaller grain allowance, of 170,000 jin, should go only to the 11 groups most severely affected by the scouring problem.

Three-township joint delegation to Beijing

By the end of March 1986, the people affected by the Dahe dam had
still received no news about the grain allowance. At this time, two
representatives of affected people living in the reservoir area
upstream of the dam — Xie Mingquan from Xunlu and Pan Guiyu from Kaixi
—went to Shanyang to seek advice. Teacher Xu was delighted to see
them, saying, “There is strength in numbers. This affects us all, so we
should all be doing something about it. In the Dahe valley, which is
affected by the dam, Kaixi is like the head of a fish, Xunlu is its
stomach and Shanyang its tail. The fleshiest part of a fish is in the
main part of its body, so you, living there, have actually suffered the
most from the corruption. Let’s get together and do something big. If
we set our minds to it, we can win this battle against corrupt

They devised a plan at this meeting to form a delegation of
representatives from the three townships to travel to Beijing and
submit a joint petition to higher authorities. And so, on April 2,
headed by Tailor Wang, five representatives set out on foot from
Shanyang. To avoid detection, they travelled overnight, climbing over
mountains to get to Bailong county. They were joined there the next day
by the representatives from Kaixi and Xunlun, and together the 10
representatives from three townships declared the establishment of “the
Dahe dam delegation, representing 10,000 people.” Tailor Wang was
chosen as leader, and a white-cloth complaint was written. The 10
petitioners then joined in swearing an oath: “We representatives,
selected by 10,000 people affected by the Dahe dam, are ready to travel
to Beijing to find an honest and upright judge. If we fail to find such
a judge, we’d rather die in Beijing than return home!”

The petitioners then set off for Beijing, going by way of the
provincial capital, Chengdu. At that point, Huang Guangfu, one of the
veteran representatives from Shanyang, suddenly regretted his
involvement and told the others he wanted to return home. The
representatives had hoped for a 10-person delegation, but now only nine
were on their way to Beijing. Moreover, one of the nine had broken his
arm during the climb from Shanyang to Bailong. All of this appeared to
bode ill for the mission to Beijing.

Once the delegation arrived in the capital, they began making the
rounds of the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Public
Security, China Central Television and so forth. They were stonewalled
at every turn. They were not even allowed to enter the front gates of
these units, let alone meet with anyone in charge. Staff there refused
even to receive the white-cloth complaint, calling it a practice from
the feudal era. Finally, the delegation went to the State Council’s
Letters and Visits Office, which has a special responsibility to
receive grassroots petitioners. But once again, they were rebuffed, as
Tailor Wang recalled:

“The clerk at the Letters and Visits Office detested people
like us who came to pester him. He treated us like loathsome creatures,
because we repeatedly asked for his help. He didn’t even bother to take
a look at the letter we submitted. He just asked us our names and where
we were from, and jotted all this down in a registration book without
even looking at us. Then he closed the door, leaving us out in the
cold. I can’t figure out why we were treated that way, since the
government permits and even encourages people to appeal to higher
authorities for help. We were all very disappointed and upset about the
way we were treated. They hadn’t even bothered to listen to us, but
just gave us the cold shoulder. We all had a terrible feeling about our
experience in Beijing.”

Everyone in the delegation felt down after this unfriendly
reception. Back in their hostel, they sat drinking beer and wondering
what to do next. They had vowed not to return home until they had found
an honest judge — but where was such a judge? They decided that, the
following day, they would display their white-cloth complaint on
Tiananmen Square. But they were nervous when they got there, because
they had been told this was a dangerous thing to do. Somebody suggested
they go instead to Fuyoujie, the back door of Zhongnanhai, where top
Chinese leaders live and work. And so they went to Fuyoujie, holding
their white-cloth complaint high above their heads. A high-ranking
official came out of Zhongnanhai and criticized them sharply for
causing a traffic jam, but did agree to take their piece of white
cloth. Then that leader called the Letters and Visits Office, which
relayed the following instructions to the province:

“Please investigate this case and report back to the State
Council. The prefecture should try to address the issue, but if this is
not possible, the province must get involved. The prefecture and
province are then invited to Beijing to report on the progress of this
issue in early May.”

The representatives were elated at having won this apparent victory.
They had seen a beloved high-ranking leader – an honest judge who had
attached great importance to their case. They felt sure their problems
were finally going to be addressed. Feeling more confident than ever,
the representatives declared to the prefecture’s Letters and Visits
Office that “the prefecture must respond to us before April 25 or a
group of 200 people will come to your office to appeal.” This time, the
province and prefecture did in fact make a quick response – but it was
not what anyone expected.

The prefecture issues Document No. 39

The prefecture did not meet the representatives’ deadline, but it
did release an official “report on handling the leftover problems
pertaining to the 11 groups in Baiyang and other villages affected by
the Dahe dam.” The report was a collective effort, with proposals put
forward by the joint work team revised many times by the prefecture and
county governments. The report redefined the erosion zone, reducing the
total area affected by the problem from the original 270 mu to 200 mu.
The Dahe station was to be responsible for compensating those within
this zone, but bore no responsibility toward those whose fields lay
beyond it. The report included a detailed analysis of the state
resettlement funds, and how and why they had been diverted to other
uses. It concluded that all of the diversions were
“production-related,” short-term, with no serious consequences, and
that no evidence was found of corruption or embezzlement by local

The report proposed transferring the operation of the
calcium-carbide factory to the Dahe hydropower station, and away from
the peasants who had failed to make a success of it. A precondition for
the transfer was that the station should provide the five “upstream
groups” below the dam with a fixed grain allowance. And after the
factory was put into operation, the station should be responsible for
repaying the bank loans taken out to build the factory, with those
debts to be cleared within four years.

The document contained a significant policy shift, in that the grain
allowance was now to go only to the five “upstream groups” below the
dam, while the six other groups were deemed to be outside of the
erosion zone and not eligible for compensation. In addition, the grain
allowance was no longer to be calculated based on population, but on
the amount of farmland affected by the scouring. A grain allowance of
81,000 jin
was to be distributed among the five groups in the erosion zone every
year. In the document, the prefecture also stressed that a small number
of people needed “more ideological education,” to teach them to be
disciplined, obey the law and work hard to become rich.

The affected people, especially the peasants in the five groups in
the erosion zone who had played the most active role in the collective
actions, were disappointed at this “solution” to their problems. Before
the representatives from the three townships travelled to Beijing, the
joint work team had recommended to the county that 130,000 jin
of grain should be provided to the five upstream groups. But now, after
their petition had been hand-delivered to Beijing, and a “beloved
leader” there had personally taken up their case, a grain allowance of
only 81,000 jin
was being offered. Moreover, the elite of the affected people were most
disillusioned about the fact that Document No. 39 contained not one
word about corrupt local officials, but instead referred to villagers
requiring ideological education. All that trouble of travelling to
Beijing and finding an honest judge close to the “emperor” had turned
out to be worth nothing after all. Now the villagers had to face the
big question of what to do next.


1 Most of China’s peasants
have the following mental image of the state: majestic and mysterious
top leaders in Beijing plus a large number of corrupt local cadres plus
a small number of upright officials (qing guan). When they
have to deal with a government official, they tend to mentally place
that individual into one of the above categories. They respect the
upright officials, but feel they are too far away to reach. Although
the elite of the affected people were not much more familiar with
“upright officials” than were the ordinary peasants, they tended to
group them into two sub-categories: those who were approachable and
those who were reluctant to deal with strangers (as suggested by Z.
Bauman, “Making and Unmaking of Strangers,” Thesis Eleven,
1995). The peasants attributed their problems to corrupt local
officials not because they had so much contact with those officials,
but because all the latter seemed to do was take away from them money
(various fees), grain (the agricultural tax) and life (in abortions
related to the birth-control program).

2 It’s worth comparing the
first and second incidents related to the family-planning regulations.
In the first case, local people stood by with the folded arms when Xu
Teacher’s wife was forcibly sterilized. At that point, Teacher Xu and
the other protest leaders had not yet won the trust of the majority of
the affected people, and so the villagers did not at that time draw a
link between their own interests and Teacher Xu’s personal tragedy. By
the time of the second case, however, the elite group of the affected
people had taken shape, and those leaders realized the importance of
framing their goals so that the interests of the peasants and the
safety of the elite group were all part of the same package (see E.
Goffman, Frame Analysis, 1974; D. Snow, “Frame Alignment
Processes, Micromobilization and Movement Participation,” American
Sociology Review, 1986). As a result, the peasants now believed it was
in their interests to protect Teacher Xu, and that if he suffered
reprisals, it was a setback for their own cause.

3 The prefecture government
chose its words carefully. “Evidence of corruption or embezzlement has
not yet been discovered” gave it some wiggle room: While protecting
local cadres from the accusations for the moment, it left the
prefecture plenty of room for manoeuvre in the future.

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.


Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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