Three Gorges Probe

The Story of the Dahe Dam: Chapter 9

Ying Xing
March 13, 2005

 

Chapter 9: Let them eat bread!

On August 1, 1987, 200 peasants marched to the Dahe station, led by
Tailor Wang, Jiang Youheng, Wu Qixian, Yao Longshi and Liang Yongwu.
The heads of the upstream groups and several representatives went to
the office at the station to talk to the people in charge. They left
the other villagers hanging about in the corridors or outside in the
shade of trees. Tailor Wang spoke to Feng Deqing, the party secretary
at the station; “Today, 200 of us have come to ask for something to
eat. We will not interfere with the operation of your facility or
damage public property, provoke any arguments or pick any fights. We
are your neighbours, after all.”

Feng replied: “I know, I know. It could be for the best that you
guys have come here. I know that you’ve lodged your appeals with
officials from top to bottom, but have actually brought little trouble
to the station. I want to say how much I appreciate that, from the
bottom of my heart. In general, the station and the people living
nearby have enjoyed a pretty good relationship. So you people can sit
down here at the station, because I know what you want — to force us to
ask for help from the prefecture, so they will send officials to
address your problems.”

At noon, the leaders of the 200-strong group asked the station
manager for 150 yuan so that lunch could be brought in for everyone,
but he refused. By 1 p.m., some of the hungry peasants went to the
staff canteen to eat whatever they could find, including frozen food
they took from the refrigerator. Governor Wang and 10 other local
cadres from the district and township arrived, and tried to persuade
the villagers to leave. But Yao Longshi put forward three demands: the
factory should be transferred to the five upstream groups as soon as
possible; compensation should be paid for the 111 mu
of farmland washed away after 1978; and 235 peasants should be given
jobs at the hydro station and enjoy all the benefits of the workers
there. No deal was reached, and the villagers didn’t leave the station
until 11 p.m.

The next day — Sunday, August 2 —the villagers went back to the
station and found food for breakfast and lunch. At noon, an argument
broke out between some of the protesters and station workers, and a
knife dropped to the ground in the scuffle, nearly injuring someone. In
the afternoon, county officials asked prefecture leaders to help deal
with the problem. This time, vice-commissioner Peng Huachun —and not
Commissioner Dong — arrived on the scene. At 10 p.m,, the prefecture
and county leaders called a mass assembly in the station’s meeting
hall. Five representatives and officials from various levels took their
seats on opposite sides of the stage, and launched into a heated debate
about the leftover problems of the Dahe dam. Commissioner Peng said:
“Look, the main reason we’re gathered here is to discuss the
disturbance you’ve created, and not any of these other issues! This
place has been a trouble spot for a very long time, and we have to come
to grips with this.”

Tailor Wang was the first to speak from the opposing side:

“Commissioner Peng, we’re sorry to bother you and the other
leaders with our problems here in this place you regard as a trouble
spot. Let me ask you this: The authorities spent as much as four
million yuan building the Dahe dam, but how much did they give us
peasants? We’re not out to create a disturbance by fighting anyone here
or making any other trouble ‚Äì we’re just asking you to seek truth from
facts, and address our problems. And here it is in a nutshell: More
than 900,000 yuan in government money was disbursed to Shanyang, and
400,000 yuan of that was poured into the calcium-carbide factory. Now
where is the other 500,000 yuan? Where is the money? Can you answer
that question?”

Peng, looking embarrassed, began to stammer: “This issue, well, this
issue is still under investigation.” The crowd booed and jeered loudly,
and a lively discussion ensured, with everyone eager to put in a word.
Nothing could be heard in the hubbub, until the elite of the affected
people asked for quiet, and continued to address the officials:

“We peasants have benefited little from the funds earmarked
for resettlement schemes. We have reported our problems to local
governments many, many times, but you have turned a deaf ear. At the
very least, you should distribute the money that’s owed to the five
upstream groups. We have a memo written by Commissioner Dong confirming
that the factory assets are worth only 200,000 yuan, but as we all
know, as much as 400,000 yuan was spent on the factory. So where’s the
other 200,000? Do you have any idea?”

The representatives raised other questions at the meeting, but no
official there could provide any answers. At midnight, the head of the
county public security bureau asked Wu Qixian to go to the powerhouse
and take a phone call from Commissioner Dong. This request aroused
Tailor Wang’s suspicions. He recalls:

“I felt uneasy about it — why didn’t they ask me to go to
the phone? Why did they choose Wu Qixian, who is simple-minded and
often acts impulsively. If Wu were to go to the powerhouse, others
would follow him. And we’d get into big trouble if somebody were to
flip a switch there — they’d accuse us of sabotage. So I realized they
were trying to set us up, and I warned Wu Qixian, ‘Whatever they’re up
to, we have to keep cool-headed. Why did they ask you to answer the
phone at the powerhouse rather than in the office, where there is also
a phone? Why would Commissioner Dong place the call to the powerhouse
rather than to the office? This can’t be true! So please don’t go
there. All of us will be finished if you go, and they turn a switch off
while you’re there. We’ll all be thrown in jail. You go if you want,
but let me make it clear that you personally have to accept the
consequences if anything happens.’ Wu Qixian heeded my strong warning,
and didn’t take the call.

“A little later, the county governor said to me, ‘Wang Xueping,
you’d better persuade the masses to go home now. Choose five
representatives to stay for a discussion in the office. Let’s have a
face-to-face talk. We’d get things done after the talk. I mean what I
say.’ I didn’t respond immediately. I felt really uneasy about this
suggestion. It was 1 or 2 a.m., people were everywhere, it was very
noisy. I saw officials arrive from both the prefecture and county
public security bureaus. I felt they had not come with good intentions,
and that we could all end up in jail. And so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll meet
you in the office but I have to go to the toilet first.’

“It was summer, so I was barefoot and wearing only shorts and a
vest, but I ran away, scaling the wall around the station. I climbed up
to Shizibao [Lion Fort] behind the station, and watched everything from
a distance. After a while, trucks full of armed police from the county
arrived, with the officers yelling and shouting, and trying to catch
people. They believed we representatives were still there —there would
have been bloodshed if we had been. We left immediately to submit one
more petition. The money was all ready — 2,000 yuan had been collected
earlier to cover the travel expenses of five representatives.”

After the representatives — Tailor Wang, Yao Longshi, Jiang Youheng,
Wu Qixian and Liang Yongwu — had all escaped, the masses were left with
no leadership. They encircled Commissioner Peng and Governor Guo,
firing questions at them such as: Is a petition against the law? Why
didn’t you listen to Commissioner Dong and implement Document No. 81?
Why can’t we claim compensation for fields that were washed away after
1978? Some of the petitioners locked the door of the powerhouse, while
others pushed a stick into the lock of the sluice gate. Fortunately,
station workers found the stick and removed it.

In the absence of the group leaders, the armed police had no idea
where to start and who to detain. Commissioner Peng and Governor Guo
were not rescued from the encirclement until 5:30 the next morning. The
peasants didn’t try to eat breakfast again at the station because the
armed police were now guarding the facility. But the villagers did
force workers out of the staff dormitory so they could station
themselves there. Some villagers were still guarding the main entrance
to the power station, preventing the prefecture and county leaders from
leaving. Governor Guo called a meeting in the afternoon, at which he
criticized the peasants’ action. The villagers did agree to let the
leaders leave the station, and at 5 p.m. Peng went back to the
prefecture. Qian Yungang, the newly appointed county party secretary,
arrived on the scene in the evening. The next day, Qian and Governor
Guo worked hard to get the masses to disperse and, one after another,
they did withdraw. Governor Wang stayed at the station until August 7
to deal with the aftermath of the tumult.

Governments versus ‘bad elements’

Both the prefecture and county governments regarded the station
occupation as serious turmoil and were intent on cracking down on
individual “bad elements.” Governor Guo pointed out at a meeting of the
county party standing committee on August 7 that the event had been
elaborately planned and organized. The villagers’ action had changed
the matter from a purely economic issue into a political one. Guo
outlined the causes of the incident: the problems faced by the affected
groups, the inconsistencies in government policies, and a lack of
ideological education and political propaganda aimed at the peasants.

After communicating the instructions from the prefecture leaders to
the conference, Party Secretary Qian proposed a three-step plan to deal
with the situation: Improve propaganda work, to boost the masses’ faith
in the party and government; address concrete problems through further
hard work; and investigate those who planned and organized the action
at the station. The secretary of the party’s political and legal
committee suggested the problems could not be completely solved if no
actions were taken against individual “bad elements.” Indeed, the
county government called the coal mine where Jiang Youheng had worked,
saying that his pension should be suspended because he had organized a
riot. (Jiang, a resident of Baiyang 14, was a retired miner.)

The conference also decided to send a vigorous work team to Shanyang
that would stay for at least a month. On the same day, the prefecture
submitted a report to the province, summarizing the action plan for the
near future:

“The incident [at the Dahe station] was organized by a
small number of people and carried out according to a plan. Before the
turmoil, the organizers announced that half the members of every
household would be required to take part. Each participant would be
given a 2 yuan subsidy, while those not participating as required would
be fined 5 yuan a day. Nobody could withdraw halfway. During the
turmoil, slogans such as ‘Down with corrupt officials!’ and ‘Fight for
survival!’ were shouted out. The mob intended to attack officials, take
food away from the station workers for three days, and interfere with
the orderly functioning of the Dahe station. The turmoil is no longer
confined to the issue of settling the leftover problems related to the
Dahe dam; now it is having a direct impact on the station’s ability to
operate, and on unity and stability in the dam region.

The main causes of the incident:

  1. The transfer of the calcium-carbide factory proposed in
    Document No. 39 has not been completed and the method of compensating
    several groups affected by the Dahe dam erosion has yet to be
    determined;
  2. In previous years, once the peasants made a
    disturbance, the government would immediately disburse a sum of money
    to deal with the problem. This became so routine that the peasants take
    it for granted that there is something to be gained by creating a
    disturbance;
  3. Some individuals forced the masses to make
    trouble and stop the operation of the Dahe power station, by taking
    advantage of flaws in our work.

The measures to be taken:

  1. The county government is responsible for settling the
    problems with the five upstream groups, based on Documents No. 39 and
    No. 81. No rules are to be bent any longer.
  2. The
    calcium-carbide factory must be returned to the Dahe station. The
    station will be responsible for purchasing a grain allowance of 81,816 jin
    for the five upstream groups. The five groups may enter into a contract
    with the station to run the factory. Before such an agreement is
    reached, the government will purchase the grain for the five groups.
  3. The
    county government will sit down with the protest organizers, educate
    them about the law and help them gain an understanding of where they
    went wrong, treating them differently depending on the problems they
    have.The Dahe station is a key enterprise in the prefecture, and it
    is imperative for us that it is able to operate without interference.
    If they have any problems related to compensation, local people can
    turn to governments at the county, district and township levels for
    help rather than going to authorities higher up. The main decisions
    should be made jointly by the county government and the Dahe station.
    And nobody will be allowed to stir up any more trouble at the station
    for any reason.”

A county work team led by Governor Wang, considered an expert on
resettlement, was stationed at the Dahe dam on August 8. Two days
later, Wang called a meeting attended by all members of the team, and
Feng Deqing, the party secretary at the station, was also invited. The
work team suggested that in order to win over the masses, there was a
need to differentiate between the majority of the affected people, who
were simply asking for help with their problems, and the small number
of people who had intended to manipulate the incident. The head of the
county public security bureau pointed out there was a “class struggle”
among the organizers of the event. Yao Longshi came from a rich peasant
family, his brother was a reactionary and was expelled from the county
teachers’ school. Jiang Youheng was from a landlord’s family. Wu Qixian
was averse to work and trafficked in fake opium, while Xu Shaorong had
been a keen activist during the Cultural Revolution. He further
suggested that the representatives’ role in the factory’s failure to
resume production should be investigated, and the conference agreed to
consider that issue a priority.

Some villagers became nervous about the arrival of the new county
work team, with its public security bureau component, and the absence
of their main leaders, such as Tailor Wang. In the circumstances,
Teacher Xu had to move a bit more toward centre-stage, in order to
boost morale. He advised people to be patient and to wait for the
arrival of officials from the provincial capital. However, he also took
a cautious approach, because he didn’t want to attract too much
attention from the work team.

As of August 11, the work team set up a public-announcement system
at the Dahe station and began a rolling broadcast of a special notice
issued by the county government:

  1. In early August, a small group of people gathered the
    masses to create turmoil at the Dahe station. They attacked station
    leaders, occupied their offices, and took away food intended for the
    station workers. These actions violated regulations on strengthening
    legal education and maintaining unity and stability issued by the
    National People’s Congress;
  2. The prefecture authorized the
    county government of Yunyang to deal with the leftover problems related
    to the Dahe station, and Document No. 39 must be enforced through the
    hierarchy of the county, district, township, village and group. Nobody
    is permitted to organize any kind of action to block implementation of
    this document.
  3. The government will talk to the people who took part in the turnoil, educating them and pointing out their mistakes;
  4. The
    ringleaders should acknowledge their errors and also report the
    offences of other people to the authorities. The broad masses who took
    part in the turmoil but drew a clear line between themselves and the
    organizers will not be subject to investigation or be expected to take
    responsibility for the incident. However, ringleaders who incited the
    turmoil and refuse to acknowledge their errors will be investigated and
    severely punished.
  5. Nobody is allowed to sabotage the
    operation of the Dahe hydropower station, or harm in any way the work
    environment and social order there. Anyone who violates or impedes the
    enforcement of these rules will be treated harshly by political and
    law-enforcement departments according to the relevant laws and
    regulations.

The government showed its hand to some extent through this public
broadcast. It described the incident at the station as “turmoil” that
threatened unity and stability. And it was clear that the government’s
approach was to try and win over the broad masses by punishing a small
group of organizers. In the circumstances, the elite of the affected
people could try and win the masses over through competition with the
government, with themselves as the rallying point. The elite would have
to persuade the masses that the battle was between them and us, and
between corrupt officials and anti-corruption forces.

The elite also needed to encourage the masses in their belief that
their beloved distant leaders would always feel concern for their
plight. On the same day the public announcement began broadcasting,
Tailor Wang’s brother, Wang Xueguo, sent him a telegram to the place he
was staying in a county bordering on Yunyang: “We will not yield to the
high-handed policies. Hope you can consult senior lawyers or ask the
central and provincial governments to send people here.” But what the
elite didn’t know was that the situation had actually just taken a turn
for the better.

On August 11, the same day Wang Xueguo sent the telegram to his
brother, the official newspaper of the prefecture published on its
front page a major speech given at a party conference by Commissioner
Dong:

“The prefecture party committee and government are calling
on cadres and the broad masses to vigorously oppose bureaucratism. Dong
Guoguang, deputy commissioner and member of the prefecture party
committee, stressed the importance of the anti-bureaucratic campaign at
a conference on August 8: ‘The party committee and cadres at various
levels should regard anti-bureaucratic practices as an important task
at present.’He listed a series of problems with the bureaucracy:
turning a blind eye to the crucial issues associated with the masses’
lives, livelihoods and safety; taking little care in their work,
resulting in a low level of efficiency; abusing their power; bending
the rules for the benefit of relatives and friends; following their own
inclinations and making decisions blindly, resulting in enormous
economic losses and waste of money.

“Dong Guoguang pointed out that the bureaucratic style of work had
damaged the image of the party in the masses’ eyes and impeded the
smooth progress of the reforms. He urged party committees and officials
at all levels to pay more attention to these bureaucratic problems. In
order to learn from past experience, all departments should disclose
problems with the bureaucracy in their own units. The leaders and other
individuals in charge who have caused huge losses and damaged state
property and imperilled the safety of the people by their bureaucratic
errors should be held accountable. Those who have broken the law should
be brought to justice.”

Why did the prefecture convene a conference on “bureaucratism” at
this time? The worst forest fire since the founding of the People’s
Republic had just occurred in northeast China. The devastating blaze,
which broke out in early May of 1987 and raged for almost a month, was
blamed on bureaucratic errors. The forestry minister was sacked, and
the central government took the opportunity to launch a nationwide
campaign against bureaucratism.

When the work team visited villagers’ homes after this, they found
that many people had posted up the newspaper account of Commissioner
Dong’s conference speech. The people believed that he was referring
specifically to the Dahe dam with these comments, and that his
criticisms were aimed directly at the bureaucrats who stood in their
way. The villagers felt sure that their own collective actions were in
line with the anti-bureaucratism campaign that had been launched by the
central government itself. Many members of the county work team became
weary of the hostile reception they were receiving from villagers, and
felt it was time to wrap up their investigations and return to the
county seat.

On August 12, the day after Commissioner Dong’s speech was reported
in the newspaper, the county government sent a fax to the prefecture,
suggesting that the organizers of the “turmoil” should be detained. But
both the prefecture commissioner, Xu Zerong, and his deputy, Dong
Guoguang, opposed the idea, believing that such a step was likely to
inflame the situation and might even allow the confrontation between
the masses and the government to spin out of control. They felt that
because the five main petition organizers had not actually committed
any crimes, there were no grounds on which to arrest them at this time.

On August 17, the county party committee called a meeting of its
standing committee to assess the progress in dealing with Dahe
resettlement issues. Governor Wang told the meeting:

“I’ve been in and out of Shanyang more than 20 times now,
and though some problems have been resolved, the factory remains a
thorny issue. And Teacher Xu has been playing a key role in stirring up
various collective actions. He has won the trust of the people, who
frankly regard him as a saviour. One time, when I was answering
questions about Document No. 39 at a public meeting, Tailor Wang simply
ignored me and presented Teacher Xu to address the assembled crowd. I
said: ‘Xu Shaorong, you should stick to your teaching.’ And I asked him
to leave. And you know what? The people became angry, and yelled out
that I was a corrupt official! Teacher Xu then said: ‘The Constitution
gives us freedom of speech and association. We’ve done nothing wrong in
demanding the resolution of our problems.’

“I think most of the masses would be willing to follow the
government’s lead. The problem is that many of them still hold out hope
that they will benefit from the petitions and the turmoil. And the
situation is getting worse. Let me put it this way: People affected by
other dams and large construction projects are watching the Dahe case
closely, and taking their cues. In my view, we have to sever the link
between the masses and the petition organizers, and remove the roots of
the trouble. It’s impossible for us to do our job properly while the
five main ringleaders remain free. And we know they have enough money
to keep up their appeals and keep taking them to higher authorities.”

Other members of the work team also expressed dissatisfaction with
the fact that the prefecture was focused on dealing with the issues
rather than reining in the “ringleaders,” who they also argued should
be arrested. They were critical of Commissioner Dong’s rashness in
making the masses some promises. The conference participants reached a
consensus on three issues, on which they agreed to seek further advice
from the prefecture: to iron out the differences between Documents No.
39 and No. 81; to decide whether compensation should be paid for the
111 mu
of farmland eroded after 1978; and to seek the arrest of three
“ringleaders” — Teacher Xu, Tailor Wang and Wu Qixian. The conference
also suggested that the work team should have a private talk with
Teacher Xu.

Two days later, the county party committee and government sent a
joint report to the prefecture, summarizing the three main problems
faced by the county work team:

  1. More than 20 incidents of varying degrees of severity
    have occurred in the course of dealing with the Dahe dam resettlement
    issues. As a result of these incidents, the rules have always been bent
    (kai kouzi), leading the masses to believe there is always
    something to be gained from making a disturbance. The affected groups
    are still hoping that officials will arrive from the central and
    provincial governments and repeat the practice of bending the rules.
  2. The
    affected people have exploited flaws and loopholes in government
    policies, taking advantage of contradictions between official documents.
  3. To
    remove the roots of the trouble, it will be necessary to detain several
    organizers of the turmoil and repatriate to their home villages the
    petitioners who are still roaming around seeking help beyond Yunyang.

Patching things up with a compromise

Meanwhile, Tailor Wang and the other petitioners travelled for two
months trying to submit their written grievances to higher authorities.
Their efforts bore no fruit in the provincial capital, because it
emerged that both the prefecture and county had already reported the
“turmoil” to the provincial government. The petitioners were denounced
for inciting the masses to make trouble by causing damage to the sluice
gate of the Dahe dam. With the funds to cover their travel expenses
dwindling, the five petitioners decided to break into two groups:
Tailor Wang and Jiang the Miner would carry on to Beijing, while the
other three would return home.

Once they arrived in the capital, Wang and Jiang went to the Letters
and Visits Office of the State Council. Then, through some contacts in
Beijing who were originally from Yunyang, they tried to circulate their
petition to the press and to various government bodies. They became
excited when a leading newspaper expressed interest in publishing their
petition. However, despite his deep sympathy for their plight, the
editor hesitated at the last moment, worried that his relatives in
Yunyang would face retaliation from local cadres if he published the
document.

Wang and Jiang were crushed. They had nothing to show for a month of
hard work in the capital. And now a campaign was under way in Beijing
to clear out the “floating population” of itinerant labourers before
the 13th national congress of the Communist Party. Staff at the Letters
and Visits Office urged them to return home, reassuring them that they
would not face punishment when they got there since they had done
nothing wrong. But Wang and Jiang worried about the consequences of
going back to Yunyang and the punishment they might face. They decided
to go back to the prefecture and seek advice from Commissioner Dong. He
told them to relax, that they had done nothing wrong.

Despite repeated requests from Yunyang county to arrest the petition
organizers, prefecture officials were reluctant to see any of the men
arrested. They worried about the potential political fallout, now that
the elite of the affected people had such tremendous ability to
mobilize the masses in large-scale actions. Moreover, at a sensitive
time like this, while the party was preparing for a national congress,
the prefecture did not want higher levels of government to see anything
troublesome happening within its administration. For the prefecture
government, therefore, the best way to deal with the whole situation
was to let it be. Doing so would not only give rise to deep gratitude
among the petitioners, but also serve to maintain political stability
and an atmosphere of unity.

Despite Commissioner Dong’s verbal promise to ensure their safety,
the petition organizers did not feel completely at ease. Increasingly,
they understood how risky it was to organize mass protests, and that
lower levels of government were looking for any excuse to retaliate
against them for past actions. Though they did not want to abandon the
struggle against corruption before achieving their goals, they did feel
it might be necessary to change their tactics in future.

After a two-month standoff, a compromise of sorts had been reached.
While the prefecture government did not accept any of the demands made
by the affected groups through mass actions, the personal safety of
their leaders was guaranteed on condition that no further such actions
took place. The elite of the affected people did not agree to give up
the struggle altogether, but they did undertake not to organize further
mass disturbances at the Dahe station.

From the above experience, Zhang Liandao, former secretary to
Commissioner Dong, summarized the fourth principle in dealing with the
Dahe dam resettlement issue:

Principle 4:
Education should be regarded as a key means to dealing with the problems

Petition activities sometimes do lead to unacceptable behaviour. In
early 1986, for instance, disgruntled villagers in Shanyang surrounded
Commissioner Dong for seven hours. In August 1987, peasants occupied
the Dahe station and attacked its leaders; when Commissioner Peng
arrived to deal with the incident, the protesters encircled him and
spat in his face. Many officials at various levels of government
recommended harsh punishment for the ringleaders. However, the
prefecture party committee and government declined to take that course
of action, preferring to address the peasants’ hardships and educate
the masses, rather than punish a few “troublemakers.”

The factory vanishes

The prefecture government’s approach of putting education before
punishment appeared to pay off. After the August 1 mass incident, the
petition organizers adjusted their strategy to focus on demanding
ownership of the factory and claiming compensation for the newly eroded
fields. In an extraordinary statement issued on December 26, 1987, they
announced that, “although there have been serious problems with the
calcium-carbide factory in the past, we no longer plan to investigate
and affix blame. The five upstream groups should take over the factory
as soon as possible, and run it so that 800 people affected by the dam
will be able to live and work in peace and contentment.”

Given the villagers’ long-running campaign against local official
corruption, this statement had the appearance of an about-face. For a
long time, the elite of the affected people had insisted that
corruption related to the factory should be investigated and guilty
local cadres brought to justice. Their new position could be seen as a
successful result of the prefecture’s policy.1
After extracting a promise about their personal safety from the
prefecture, the elite of the affected people felt it was time to adjust
the focus of the struggle. There were two other reasons for this
change. The prefecture had authorized the county to assume full
responsibility for tackling the problems related to the Dahe dam, but
the county had already announced its finding that “no individual cadre
at the district or township level had been involved in any corrupt
activities.” In addition, two top local leaders — the head of Shanyang
district and the district party secretary — were transferred to other
areas, helping to defuse tensions that had built up between the
petitioners and local leaders.2

Changing the focus of the campaign, however, by no means meant that
the affected people’s representatives had abandoned the struggle. In
early 1988, the Dahe station embarked on a bank-strengthening project
below the dam in a bid to solve the erosion problem. The elite of the
affected people, however, did not want the problem addressed in that
way, and so mobilized people to turn out in force to stop the
construction work. The township government then met with leaders of the
five upstream groups, who put forward the following demands:

  1. Disburse the 1987 grain allowance to the affected groups.
  2. Pay compensation for fields eroded after March 1987.
  3. Pay compensation for any fields eroded in the future.
  4. Hire people from the affected groups, rather than construction teams, to do the bank-strengthening work.

Governor Wang responded:

  1. Ownership of the calcium-carbide factory should be
    transferred to the Dahe station, which would then be responsible for
    providing the funds to purchase 81,816 jinof grain to go to the affected groups.
  2. The prefecture would decide whether to pay compensation for the 111 mu of newly eroded fields.
  3. The area eroded in the future should be measured by both the Dahe station and local governments.
  4. Nobody would be permitted to interfere again with the bank-strengthening work.

The county government believed that if the affected groups were
assured of receiving a steady allowance of grain, they would have no
cause to complain about their difficulty surviving, and the other
issues could be addressed more ambiguously.3
In responding to the county’s proposal, the elite of the affected
people decided to concentrate on straightening out the factory issue.
They stuck to their position that the enterprise should be handed over
to the peasants, given that the bulk of their resettlement funds had
been poured into it. They also believed that with fixed assets of about
200,000 yuan, the factory would be a reliable income stream for the
peasants, far off into in the future.

But local governments still preferred to have the Dahe station
manage the factory and assume responsibility for providing the peasants
with a grain allowance. Local officials worried that transferring
ownership of the factory to the five upstream groups could lead to
disputes with the three downstream groups. They were also concerned
about the peasants’ ability to manage the factory. If anything went
wrong, the peasants would turn to local governments for help, and
therein could lie no end of trouble.

With local cadres and the petition organizers locked in a seesaw
struggle over the factory, surprising reports began to emerge: Peasants
from the five upstream groups had begun to steal material from the
factory. Perhaps they had lost patience with the long-running dispute,
or simply took it for granted that the factory assets were theirs by
right. In any case, they began carting things away from the factory in
a steady stream. Given the difficulty of raising money from the
peasants to cover petition activity expenses, even the elite of the
affected people got into the act. For instance, in a diary entry on
November 25, 1988, Yao Longshi recorded that gasoline taken from the
factory was sold to raise money for the struggle.

Ironically, while the prefecture, county and township governments
were busy exchanging views on a timetable for handing over the factory
to the five upstream groups, the enterprise in question was slowly
being asset-stripped. Two of the most serious incidents occurred on the
nights of July 16 and 18, 1989, when almost everything left of any
value was taken away. And thus, one of the most hotly disputed issues
causing friction between the governments and local people simply went
cold. The words “calcium-carbide factory” ceased appearing in the
people’s petitions as well as in government documents. As much as
410,000 yuan had been invested in the factory since 1978, and it only
ever produced a few thousand yuan worth of products one time in 1985.
Now everything was gone, and the factory was nothing but a scrap heap.
At the same time, however, one of the factors that had bedevilled the
relationship between local people and the governments was finally off
the agenda for good.


Notes:

1 After extracting a guarantee
that their personal safety was not at risk, the elite of the affected
people began to lose their determination to bring down local cadres
with charges of corruption. The prefecture’s decision to authorize the
county government to take full responsibility for the Dahe issue
further reduced the chance of corrupt township and district officials
being brought to justice. In any case, the county appeared unable to
accept that local cadres had become corrupt. More importantly, there
was a danger that the elite could lose the support of many of the
affected people, who had grown weary of the unending struggle and less
confident about the chances of winning the legal battle against local
cadres.

2 It is not unusual in China
for local officials to be transferred in a bid to defuse a
confrontation between peasants and the authorities. In the case of
Shanyang, higher authorities hesitated to take such action in the
1984-87 period when tensions between local officials and people
affected by the Dahe dam were running high. Transfers at that time
might have been taken as an admission of corruption among local
officials, and would also have been seen as the government caving in to
pressure from the peasants. And so the county did not take such action
until March of 1988, when the confrontation had begun to ease.

3 Here it can be seen that the
government deliberately used the tactic of bureaucratic delay in order
to deal more easily with problems after allowing some time to elapse.
Of course, in skirting around a contentious issue, officials also ran
the risk of losing a golden opportunity to resolve a serious problem
once and for all.


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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