Three Gorges Probe

Three Gorges: resettlement and marginalization

Dayu Yang
University of Leeds, School of Geography
January 1, 2000

Thesis by Chinese academic and scholar, writes that a lack of adequate compensation is a common feature of dam resettlement schemes the world over, and the Three Gorges resettlement is no exception.

1.1 Saying farewell to fertile land
1.2 Moving uphill
1.3 Moving far away
2.1 A generation’s dream: country to city
2.2 From urban worker to the urban jobless

Unlike the voluntary migrant who has a strong desire to move, the involuntary migrant has less motivation to uproot. Voluntary migrants have the opportunity to carefully consider their moving plans and to make adequate preparations, whereas involuntary migrants are displaced in haste, often not knowing where they will go until they are notified by resettlement authorities.

Impoverishment of displaced people is the greatest risk associated with involuntary population resettlement: this usually occurs either in the displacement stage or during the rehabilitation process or, most likely, both.

Compared to past resettlement efforts in China, progress has obviously been made in the case of Three Gorges dam. The project boasts nationwide economic support for the region that must accommodate the dam and higher compensation standards for displaced populations, whose livelihoods have been taken into account with regard to resettlement policy and planning. Nevertheless, the greatest priority remains political ideology and national image: the real driving force behind the dam’s construction.

In their bid to build the world’s largest dam, an US$30-billion project so immense that it will be visible from space, the Chinese government and the Three Gorges project authority have done their damnedest to keep resettlement problems hush-hush. By keeping things under wraps, the powers that be hoped to minimize political fallout due to concern over the issue at home and abroad.

To this end, China’s news media has been directed to focus on the dam’s positive aspects and refrain from coverage of project-related problems, including population resettlement.

But in order to create an environment where solutions are possible, the potential for problems associated with the Three Gorges resettlement scheme must be identified, analyzed and discussed. And this is my focus here: to address the potential impoverishment risks that threaten Three Gorges migrants in the hopes that solutions may follow.

Land for land: strategy and problems

Farmland is the lifeblood of peasants. For the majority of peasants in rural China, farmland not only represents their source of basic income but it also represents their ultimate source of security in terms of livelihood (Tuan, 1970).

In densely populated areas like Three Gorges Valley, one of the most difficult problems presented by the resettlement scheme is whether land of equivalent value is available for migrants. The land for land strategy was created to resettle people forced to leave their fertile and rich homelands to make way for the dam’s 600-kilometre reservoir: to accommodate this, 22 Yangtze river counties are slated for flooding. The land for land strategy proposes moving the estimated 1.2 million people who will be displaced by the flooding to nearby areas at higher elevations or to other regions entirely.

Currently, the authorities are under pressure to move 550,000 by 2003, when the waters of the Yangtze are scheduled to begin rising and the dam’s first 14 turbines are to start operating. (On Sept. 18, 2000, China’s Guangming Daily reported that by the end of July, 2000, some 240,000 people had already been resettled, but critics estimate that this number is actually less.)

1.1 Saying farewell to fertile land

In most cases, building large dams results in the inundation of vast tracts of fertile farmland. For instance, the Danjiangkou dam on China’s Hanjiang River created an 800 km² artificial lake and submerged 26,500 hectares of farmland that was once "a land of rice and fish" in North Hubei and South Henan. The Sanmenxia Reservoir on the Yellow River flooded more than 57,000 hectares of farmland on both sides of the river, one of the most fertile and high-yielding regions in North China.

Generally speaking, river valleys offer more farming advantages: relatively even topography; sufficient provision of water resources; rich, natural soil fertility; and convenient transportation. It’s no wonder, then, that the best agricultural zones and the most prosperous cities and economic activities are concentrated in valley plains and river deltas, such as the North China Plain, and China’s Chengdu and Jianghan plains, the Yangtze Delta, Pearl Delta and so on.

The Three Gorges dam is no exception. It, too, will flood vast tracts of farmland. According to a 1988 feasibility report published by China’s Water Conservancy Press (REG), 23,800 hectares of farmland and 4,100 hectares of orange orchards will be lost to the reservoir (REG, 1988). Although the inundation rates are not very high in most affected counties, the farmland to be flooded is located on flood land, terraces and low hills on both banks of the Yangtze, where the soil is rich and deep and there is a long history of cultivation and favourable natural conditions.

The best land lies in the river valleys and floodplains, which account for less than five per cent of the total area, while the remainder is mountainous terrain. Grain, vegetables and cash crops dominate among the agricultural products. Grain output per hectare reaches 7,500 kilograms – 30 per cent higher than that of all farmland in the reservoir area. Locally produced oranges, tangerines and hot pickled tuber are especially high-profile products at home and abroad (Chen/Du, 1995).

In fact, according to a 1993 report, rural migrants have more income per capita, about 20 per cent higher, than that of all peasants in the Three Gorges reservoir area (Liang, 1995). In Fengjie County, the net income per capita of rural migrants who live along the river valleys was 1,024 yuan, almost twice as high as the average level for the county in 1992. In Kaixian County, migrants in Shuidong and Renli villages had an average of 1,200 yuan and 1,800 yuan net income per capita respectively and were reluctant to move to the uphill villages of Huangling and Yinxian, with a much lower net income per capita: less than 500 yuan in 1992 (Li et al., 1995).

Rural migrants in Kaixian County told relocation officials that they would never move "if production conditions are worse, and if income and standard of living are lower in the resettlement regions." (Li et al., 1995). Migrants in Wangjiang ("watching river") village, in Zigui County, raised more specific demands. They refused to consider resettlement sites that weren’t close to the Yangtze River around the county seat. This is because Wangjiang village is near to Guizhou, the former county seat of Zigui County, where migrants have at their disposal a wealth of income sources: growing oranges on the land, selling vegetables and other products at market, fishing in the river, doing business in town, among other options. Some migrants said they would be unable to fall asleep if they could not hear the Yangtze, in particular, the steam whistles of ships that come and go along the river.

Aside from economic needs and security, rural migrants’ attachment to their land is for both social and sentimental reasons. There is no doubt that farmland is vital to the lives of peasants. However, Chinese peasants have experienced many upheavals in terms of land ownership since 1949, the year Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

One of the first tasks of Mao’s communist government was land reform, which erased the social distinctions between landlords and peasants and redistributed land from the former to the latter. More than 300 million peasants benefited from land reform, which was quickly followed by a co-operative movement to consolidate a worker-peasant alliance, involving the formation of mutual-aid teams, agricultural co-operatives and communes. This process of co-operatization was not only based on the socialist desire to wipe out private property, it also allowed China to reinvent itself as a new nation, inspired by the Soviet Union’s model of imposed collectivization, from 1928 to 1932.

Step by step, Chinese peasants were persuaded, or forced, to pool their labour, their tools and their land and to work together, according to Chairman Mao’s lofty ideal of communism. As a result, the peasants lost the land they had gained and their security no longer resided in personal possession (Tuan, 1970). Collectivization, characterized by larger agricultural units, the incorporation of labour and production tools and concentration of land ownership was not a mutual outgrowth of the development of the rural economy, but an economically costly and politically alienating rupture (Friedman, 1991). The transformation proved disastrous: Chinese peasants no longer had an individual incentive to apply themselves to farming on collective or common property, and many found themselves impoverished.

In the late 1970s, with the introduction of the household contract responsibility system¹, peasants, in practice, worked on their own properties, even though the state retained formal ownership². From that time forward, peasants were incented to labour harder and invest more financially in the land, fueling greater output and higher incomes. Now, however, rural peasants will again lose their land, this time to a reservoir.

1.2 Moving uphill

The Chinese saying "Human beings desire upward movement while water flows downward," does not apply to the majority of rural peasants who do not want to move uphill where the land is steeper, the temperature lower and the water harder to get. Elevated land is less suitable for farming – a long history of human habitation and land exploitation has caused natural resources to deteriorate in higher areas.

Historical research shows that in the Three Gorges area, initial land development took place in valley regions, expanded to the low hills and spread to remote, mountainous areas. According to Lan Yong, a historical geographer at the Southwest China Normal University, people from East and South China migrated westward along the Yangtze and economic activities took place in riverside plains and near hills prior to the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644). Between 1723 and 1796, growing numbers of people from either direction poured into the remote, mountain areas to farm, inspiring the saying, "a village on every hill and little land left in river valley."

The Tang Dynasty’s (AD 618-907) original development pattern of farming, fishing and commerce, was replaced by agricultural development and, especially, the farming of non-irrigated land during the Qing Dynasty (Lan, 1992). Since 1949, owing to increasing demand for grain and firewood, more mountains and hills had to be tilled and more forests cut for farming and settlement. As a result, arable slopes on hills and mountains, for the most part, have already been developed and are even overplowed. Of the total cultivated land in the Three Gorges reservoir area, 60 per cent is "slope" land – 25 to 50 per cent of which has a slope gradient exceeding 25 degrees. For example, the total percentage of slope land in Kaixian County is 40 per cent, 48 per cent in Yunyang and 53 per cent in Wushan (Wang, 1993). The hill soil in these counties is thin and infertile and the agricultural output is far lower than that of the river valleys and floodplains slated for flooding. In rural China, land in such critical condition is called "hanging land" (guapodi) or "paper land" (dazibaodi), caused by a lack of water and fertilizer, in addition to cultivation and management difficulties. As the old Chinese saying goes, "harvesting in this land depends on the mercy of God."

Rural peasants’ knowledge of their land is extensive and they’re certainly aware of the difficult conditions inherent in elevated areas. Yet, peasants face a great dilemma: If they are unwilling to move far away (the distance resettlement option), they will be forced to deal with these harsh conditions if they take the only other option available to them: moving uphill.

Based on my survey, especially in-depth interviews, three patterns are emerging in regard to uphill resettlement. The first is exemplified by the villages of Leijiaping and Yinxintuo, where relocatees prefer to resettle on elevated land rather than move far away. The second is represented by Jiuxiangcheng village: after resettling on elevated land, migrants found they had little land to farm and experienced difficulty maintaining their livelihoods. In the case of Gaoyang village, migrants refused to move uphill because the land was too steep, the soil poor and water harder to access.

¹ According to the reformed system, peasants were allocated farmland on an individual household basis and were allowed to sell their surplus at market after producing their national quota of farming products.

² Based on China’s Land Act, the state owns urban land while the ownership of rural land belongs to the village.

Leijiaping and Yinxintuo

Migrants from these villages would prefer to settle in hill areas rather than move far away if undeveloped land, especially land for growing oranges, was available at a higher elevation, or if other economic opportunities existed. However, the prerequisites for such a move are either resettling halfway up mountains or hills that are near the Yangtze River. Migrants are unwilling to relocate to remote, mountain areas even though there is more spare land there. They prefer to live in close proximity to the Yangtze as this affords increased economic opportunities and more convenient transportation.

For instance, Leijiaping village in Badong County initiated its trial government-funded resettlement schemes as early as 1986. In 1996, at the time of relocation to elevated land nearby, there were 1.5 mu (0.1 hectare) of orange groves per capita set up for them in advance and some of the orange trees that grew there were ready to turn a profit. But not every migrant family in the resettlement area enjoyed success. There was no farmland prepared for more than 60 families from Zhujiadian – a village located at a lower elevation near the Yangtze – and few were given land to grow vegetables by the Leijiaping villagers who had already moved there. Most of these families were forced to try earning their incomes in new ways but, in the end, two-thirds suffered a loss of income after relocation. One of these migrants told me that his family was only able to earn a net income of 300 yuan per capita annually – compared to an average yearly income of approximately 2000 yuan per capita in Badong County. Although he had a new home, it was a shell with little in the way of furniture, let alone household electronic appliances.

Another example is Yinxintuo village, whose inhabitants benefit from a good location close to the dam site and a short distance from the new county seat of Zigui. Compared to other villages, Yinxintuo received more attention from government leaders and became the focus of national attention after a visit by Li Peng, the State Council’s ex-premier, along with other central government officials. The village head, Cui Bangyan, told me that 741 people and 627.5 mu of farmland would be affected by the reservoir, which represents 75 per cent of Yinxintuo’s total population and total cultivated area, respectively. After the dam is completed, 208.5 mu of cultivated land will be all that remains, with an average of 0.47 mu per capita.

Based on this and the original plans for resettlement, more than half of Yinxintuo village will have to move far away. Most villagers are reluctant to do this because their current location is favourable and they would prefer not to deal with the possibility of having to develop non-farming activities. Cui Bangyan was confident that the village economy would recover given that 84 per cent of its income comes from non-farming industries. In 1997, 60 per cent of Yinxintuo village was engaged in non-farming economic activities; in 1998, some 140 out of 410 labourers sought work in the new county seat, at the dam site and from other employers.

Unlike Bangyan, however, the villagers I interviewed were not as optimistic about their future and the restoration of their livelihoods. Their greatest concern, they said, is that they will have less land to farm, and they are also sad that most of their orange orchards will be flooded by the reservoir.

Jiuxiancheng village, Badong County

Jiuxiancheng village lies 4 km upstream from Leijiaping, which faces the county seat of Badong across the Yangtze. Some 241 people out of 270 villagers are required to move uphill and, so far, two thirds of them have already been resettled in a nearby area at a higher elevation.

The head of this migrant group told me on July 13, 1998: "The greatest problem facing us is that the farmland is insufficient to allow us to maintain our livelihoods." More than 200 mu of land will be submerged and after the reservoir is formed, only 15 mu of land will remain.

To prepare more land to accommodate the migrants, locals were employed to open barren land higher up. The developed land, 100 mu in size, is poor, thin and overgrown due to mismanagement and a delay in its allocation, which prevented migrants from working on it. What had never occurred to migrants was that they were required to purchase this land at a cost of 2,000 yuan per mu.

Local cadres (low-ranking officials) told them that the land had been reclaimed with a government loan; the migrants’ money would be used to repay that loan. Migrants were further exacerbated when local cadres spent the entire production resettlement fund on an unsuccessful orange farm. Some were outraged and protested; several young men caught protesting were sent to the nearest town to be punished but were later released after much pleading on behalf of their fellow villagers.

On top of this, another problem occurred: a flood-damaged water pipe cut off migrants’ supply of drinking water. "We would have moved far away if we had known what would happen in advance," Wang Xiaohui, a middle-aged woman told me when I interviewed her and her mother-in-law at the village. Both of them feel they have no alternative sources of income, only farming, but they have difficulty surviving on so little land. Wang worried that her three children would be unable to continue their education because of increasing school fees. Meanwhile, her mother-in-law worried that her family hadn’t enough money to pay for the uphill farmland they were expected to buy.

Gaoyang village, Yunyang County

Gaoyang villagers voiced their strong opposition to resettling in a nearby region. Their picturesque village is surrounded by mountains and situated on the banks of the Xiaojiang River, a Yangtze tributary. Villagers enjoy rich, fertile farmland, and cash crops such as soy bean, cotton, peanuts and oil-seed which provide a major source of income for villagers – although some have taken work aside from farming due to the low ratio between land and people (0.66 mu land per capita). Some 1359.6 mu of farmland will be lost to the reservoir and 70 per cent of local residents1,914 in total – will be required to move out of the river valley, according to a 1991 survey by the Yangtze Water Resources Committee.

Based on the committee’s resettlement plan, some 787 migrants were to be resettled on elevated land. Among this number, there has been much resistance to the proposed arrangement – the mountainous slopes they must move to are too steep to develop, let alone build on. There would be little land left above the submersion line and the soils there are thin and infertile, covered in stones and sand. One group of 50 are expected to resettle in an uphill area with only 23.6 mu of land above the submersion line. Another group of 83 will move higher up the mountain; their bounty includes 38.8 mu of land averaging 0.47 mu per capita.

How steep are the slopes? Local cadres told me that two young female staff from the Yangtze Water Resources Committee were dispatched to ascertain whether or not it would be feasible to resettle migrants in elevated areas. Reluctant to tackle the Gayoyang mountain initially, they began the steep and strenuous climb but it didn’t take long for them to become frightened, so frightened that they were unable to get themselves back down. In the end, they were carried down by locals.

As for soil quality: When the option was presented to them hypothetically, locals indicated they would rather have "one mu of land in the river valley than 10 mu of land uphill." From a scientific viewpoint, Wu Shiqian, a professor at Hubei Agricultural College, explained that serious soil erosion would occur if the mountains and hills near Gaoyang village were developed further. This is because the soil texture of the area is made up of weathering materials which are likely to erode, potentially causing slumps and slides.

To get across their opposition to the resettlement scheme, villagers donated one yuan each to send several village representatives to Beijing to protest the arrangement. However, the exercise proved unsuccessful: the village contingent failed to locate anyone influential enough to report their situation to and couldn’t raise enough money to prolong their stay in Beijing.

"How can we earn a living on the slopes?" This was the most common question to surface in my interviews with migrants along the Xiaojiang River in July, 1998. When we asked: "Do you agree that all migrants should be settled nearby to where they live currently, rather than move far away?" Of the eight people we interviewed, all of them answered no, "do not agree, strongly." Obviously, Gaoyang is an exceptional case when it comes to distance resettlement; in general, most migrants prefer to stay in close proximity to their homeland. By comparison, five out of 11 respondents who were asked the same question in nearby Dongxi village, said no and the other six opted to move uphill. Although, in the case of Dongxi, this is probably because there is a relatively higher ratio between land and migrant on the upper slopes.

1.3 Moving far away

According to the 1988 feasibility report published by Water Conservancy Press (REG), rural peasants forced to move because of Three Gorges dam were to be resettled locally in areas close to the dam’s reservoir. In theory, settling all migrants locally is feasible, but it doesn’t take into account local conditions, in particular, the environment of a specific area. Despite good intentions and considerable effort, the resettlement plan failed to work in practice.

For instance, Zigui County in the province of Hubei, experienced great difficulty resettling its migrants. The county, located in the dam site area, confronted great difficulty in settling 67,506 people – more than 15 per cent of its total population. Forty per cent of the migrants had to be moved out before the Yangtze was dammed at the end of September, 1997, but sufficient land resources were unavailable to accommodate them at such short notice.

Instead, the government and the resettlement authority decided to move 11,551 migrants right out of the county, to the peri-urban districts of Yichang City, and Zhijiang and Dangyang counties – located outside the reservoir area at distances ranging from 80 km to 200 km from Zugui County. These areas were selected because they were economically developed, they would benefit from the dam project and, in the case of the latter two, are within the administrative jurisdiction of Yichang City. The specific resettlement sites were chosen by local governments in the receiving regions, and by relocation officials and migrant representatives. As a result, regional differences were inevitable.

The majority of peri-urban Yichang migrants I surveyed registered feelings of dissatisfaction with the farmland they were allocated. By contrast, migrants resettled in Zhijiang County expressed relative satisfaction with their replacement farmland. These migrants – mainly located in the village of Pinghu in the township of Dongshi – were resettled in a site located in the western part of Jianghan Plain: close to the county seat of Zhijiang and a national motorway. In the case of Zigui County migrants, local governments gave sufficient thought to land allocation and guaranteed migrants land provision.

In the 1970s, Pinghu village accommodated 521 migrants displaced by the Gezhouba dam. The migrants rebuilt their homes there and named their village "Peaceful Lake" (pinghu) – meaning they had made way for the man-made lake formed by the dam. In light of their history, Pinghu villagers were sympathetic to the Zigui migrants’ situation and gave reasonably sufficient, even good land, to the newcomers.

However, just 40 km away from Pinghu village, migrants resettled in the village of Renjiaqiao, in the township of Jiangkou, complained that the land they were given was less than the land the relocation authority had promised them. One migrant, Xu Kezhu, told me that based on the contract he and the village had agreed to prior to resettlement, his land allotment was to have been 3 mu but the farmland he actually received was only 2.4 mu. Another migrant, Xu Wanping, says he only received 80 per cent of his farmland allocation from the village, which meant that he wasn’t able to produce enough grain to support his family.

Aside from differences in anticipated land sizes, migrants were unable to secure decent paddy fields, cash-crop lands and fishing pools from their hosts and for good reason: Under China’s household contract responsibility system, landholder rights are effective for up to 30 to 50 years. And despite their best efforts, local governments, in particular, village cadres, have experienced difficulty in forcing villagers to give up their land rights, especially, and not surprisingly, when it comes to good-quality, high-yielding farmland. Political mobilization is not enough to convince locals to comply with government directives.

At the time, around 70 per cent of Zigui County migrants were resettled in the peri-urban districts of Yichang City. Guo Qingshan, and his wife and baby son were among these migrants: Qingshan said he felt fortunate to have been resettled earlier rather than later, and was satisfied with his farmland allocation. So far Qingshan has been able to grow vegetables, plant orange trees and raise pigs. However, the original owner of Qingshan’s plot remains resentful about having to release his land to a migrant, saying he had to do it because of the Three Gorges project. According to the head of Qingshan’s village: "Redistributing farmland to migrants is the most difficult thing in our village."

Unlike Qingshan, migrants who resettled in Linbao village in the township of Wujia, tell a different story. Linbao received 84 migrant households (307 people in total), and the village certainly had its advantages: It was only 7.5 km away from Yichang City, a major highway was located nearby and spare farmland was available. In April, 1995, without houses built to move to, 74 migrant households from Xiangxi in Zigui County were moved to Linbao in haste, resulting in a number of problems. Building new homes proved frustrating and the farmland they were allocated was mostly sand!

Qi Lin, head of the Three Gorges National Relocation Bureau, who had visited the village, pointed out that without decent farmland, mountain forest and local industry, Linbao wasn’t suitable for resettlement. Linbao, however, was agreeable to accepting migrants because it wanted the production resettlement fund the government was offering, which it got and spent on local construction; village cadres, it is alleged, also put the monies to personal use. When I interviewed the head of Linbao village, he said the fund had been used to improve the soil of the land allocated to migrants and denied spending their money in other ways.

With few exceptions, the land for land strategy has failed to provide migrants with replacement land of satisfactory quality. Elevated land offers little in the way of arable land and elevated environments are more limited. Distance resettlement relies heavily on the willingness of hosts to accommodate the displaced newcomers, and whether or not government funding for resettlement has been used by hosts towards this end. Landholder rights have also presented a major obstacle in the struggle to relocate migrants. Taken together, these concerns contribute to a decline in migrant incomes, especially during the transition period.

Country to city: seeking appropriate resettlement

Planners were all too aware that the Three Gorges reservoir area would not be able to absorb the massive number of farmers displaced by the dam: a percentage of them would have to trade agriculture for industry. According to a 1998 Three Gorges resettlement report (REG), 40 per cent of rural migrants were to be absorbed into non-farming industries and the remaining 60 per cent would earn their livelihoods farming. This plan was based on the reservoir area’s abundance of natural resources for industry. In addition, resettlement compensation could be used to fund development and, due to low levels of urbanization, cities and towns were ripe for expansion. Liang Fuqing, a research fellow at the National Relocation Bureau for the Three Gorges project, pointed out that at least 34 per cent of rural migrants could support themselves in non-farming industries (Liang, 1995).

Buoyed by government propaganda and inspired by the desire to upgrade their standard of living, rural migrants in the Three Gorges reservoir area placed high expectations on the project. Many harboured a strong desire to relocate to a town or city and become an urban resident.³ During interviews, some migrants expressed disappointment that this was not the case, saying: "We are looking forward to Three Gorges and expecting Three Gorges, but we are still farming after it started." Or, "We are thinking about Three Gorges and fond of Three Gorges but we are peasants so far."

For some rural migrants, the move into towns and cities and settling into urban enterprises had been a happy transition, that is until they lost their jobs, as many did, and became part of urban China’s unemployed labour army. This often happened after migrants’ rural household registration changed – China’s household registration system requires each citizen to register in one administrative jurisdiction in order to obtain a permanent residency card or hukou. What can make the situation even worse, is that jobless migrants have a harder time finding other work compared to the urban jobless.

³ Given the choice, if they cannot keep their own land, many rural migrants prefer to relocate to towns and cities rather than resettle in distant rural locations or in uphill areas near to where they used to live.

In this section, I will examine why some rural migrants prefer to resettle in towns and cities and why many who did quickly lost their jobs.

2.1 A generation’s dream: country to city

For generations, Chinese peasants have been attracted by the lure of bright urban lights that promise more benefits, higher social status, variation and excitement. Before the 1980s, urban benefits and status could be passed down from generation to generation, leading to a heritage system of urban residential status. For example, without adequate education and professional training, urban dwellers could find employment as primary-school teachers, even high-school teachers, provided one of their parents had been a schoolteacher.

At that time, for the majority of people in rural China, there were only three possible ways to access the city: Attend a college or professional training school, join the army, or become employed by a state-owned enterprise. It is clear that all of these avenues were open to people with good educations who had suitable family backgrounds; political backgrounds were especially helpful. During the Cultural Revolution college students were selected based on their family backgrounds (chengfen), and priority was given to youth whose families were either poor rural peasants before 1949 or belonged to the urban working-class (proletariat). Joining the army and securing employment with a state-owned enterprise was based on the same requirement, although this was only one of the principle qualifying conditions imposed.

With the introduction of economic reform and China’s opening up in the late 1970s, rural people were able to migrate to cities where they might benefit from greater economic opportunities and enjoy the excitement of city living. Even though they were not registered as urban, or even temporary, residents, they could do business and earn money in cities.

When China’s centrally planned economic system became a market economy – a process that began in late 1978 – many urban workers lost their "iron rice bowl" of guaranteed jobs as a result of the transformation. Household registration (hukou), the ticket to enter urban areas that so many rural Chinese had been struggling to obtain, was no longer applied with vigour. Nevertheless, rural migrants still regarded registration as important in order to access education, employment and business opportunities, particularly for younger generations: people who move without officially changing their hukou are not entitled to the benefits of legal residency, such as free schooling for their children. Because of benefits such as increased economic possibilities and better social services and facilities, more than half of the migrants we interviewed expressed a desire to change their rural household registration from rural to urban.

According to our survey, the majority of rural migrants would prefer to move to a city or town rather than another rural area. The younger the migrant, the more likely he or she will strongly favour urban living. The middle-aged, who represented the bulk of our respondents, are likely to carry heavier family burdens and are more realistic about their location preferences: often satisfied to live near county seats that can provide either adequate economic opportunities for themselves or a good education for their children. Overall, older respondents were more likely to express a strong attachment to their homeland than other age-groups.

2.2 From urban worker to the urban jobless

Rural migrants are resettled in cities and towns in one of two ways: They are moved and resettled collectively or can live with relatives and friends. The latter method is mostly applicable to the elderly, who may already have family there, or to married women, many of whom have urban-dwelling children or husbands. In most instances, these migrants do not require employment arrangements to be made for them. Relocation authorities tend to prefer it when there is no need to organize employment or make other preparations. However, there are a number of problems associated with this particular method of resettlement.

The migrant must be eligible to change his or her household registration status from rural to urban: In order to do this, the applicant must have relatives in the resettlement area. Transferring hukou from rural to urban is complicated and if transferral does occur, the migrant may be charged a large entry fee by the receiving region. For instance, Labour ministry regulations require migrant workers to obtain temporary resident certificates from a police station in their destination city, a certificate verifying eligibility for employment from a labour bureau in his or her county of origin, and a card showing proof of employment from a labour bureau in the city they are moving to. Also, the public security department responsible for household registration insists on controlling the numbers that enter urban regions, even though local governments and relocation authorities might have approved the country to city move.

Guided by resettlement plans and fueled by the notion that burgeoning industry can rebuild the local economy quickly, local governments and relocation authorities in the dam site area (Yichang and Zigui counties), originally thought they would place rural migrants in local industrial enterprises.

In the Three Gorges dam site area, migrants displaced by the project were mainly settled in the county seat of Yichang – as so much land was appropriated by the dam there wasn’t enough space in nearby areas to absorb them. At first, the resettled migrants felt that their dreams of urban success had been realized: some landed industrial jobs and some built new homes around the county seat of Yichang, occasionally employers provided migrant families with housing. Many migrants reported that their new housing arrangements were "better," and that urban transportation, infrastructure and their overall living environments were an improvement over what they had known previously. More significantly, they reported that they were better off in terms of health care facilities and education for their children. As these migrants were mostly concentrated in 38 resettlement sites created especially for them, their experience of integration was minimal.

But shortly after they built new homes for themselves, many migrants were faced with an unexpected hurdle: unemployment. At the time, nationwide, unemployment rates had reached a crisis point in the industrial sector. In Chongqing municipality alone, more than two million people formerly employed by state-run and collectively owned enterprises had been laid-off. In Yunyang County, 20 per cent of urban workers (8,000) had lost their jobs (Wu, 1998).

Employers that had taken on rural migrants were inevitably affected. In Yichang County, many businesses and factories where rural migrants were employed were struggling to survive and a number of migrant workers had been laid-off. Privately-owned enterprises were particularly hard hit. The Tianxin Electronic Company, a privately-owned local business that had been performing well for several years, took on 507 rural migrants. Several months later, the company couldn’t sell its products and business gravely declined; as a consequence, only eight migrant workers were kept on the payroll and, of these, most were only receiving a "token salary" of about 120 yuan each month. Even this token salary was eventually terminated by the end of January, 1998.

Beilian Clothing Factory, another privately owned business, closed its gates and all of its employees – including 267 migrants – lost their jobs. When I interviewed officials at Yichang City’s relocation bureau on April 17, 1998, 2,000 migrant workers had been laid-off: 60 per cent of the total number of migrant workers employed by county-, town- or privately-owned businesses in Yichang County.

The reason why so many migrants lost their jobs is partly due to the macroeconomic conditions in China at the time, as well as problems related to the resettlement operation.

Following the success of the household contract responsibility system in rural China, the thrust of economic reform has been aimed at improving production efficiency, especially in the industrial sector. A Chinese academic writing for Xinhua Digest (Gu, 1998), estimated that overstaffing – between 15 million and 37 million people in state-run enterprises – accounts for 30 to 50 per cent of China’s urban work force. Ten years after urban economic reform was initiated in 1984, unprofitable state-run enterprises increased in number and represented more than 50 per cent of the total work force which led to massive unemployment: 30 million jobless, about 30 per cent of China’s total urban working population (Wang, 1998). According to official statistics in 1996, 79.7 million urban workers in state- and collectively-owned enterprises were laid-off (CNSB, 1997).

Rural industry and town enterprises, responsible for rural economic growth and labour transformation, face greater challenges in terms of limited financial and technological resources which, in turn, affect product quality. As a result, small-town businesses are more affected by hardship than state-run enterprises, and are forced to send their employees home more often and with little or no pay. In the Three Gorges area, most rural migrants are put to work in small-town enterprises because large-scale, high-performance operations are unwilling to take them on. Under these circumstances, it is inevitable that migrant workers would have to deal with unemployment.

In the actual relocation operation, local government and resettlement authorities failed to take market fluctuations and the national economic situation into account. This has led to the failure of businesses they had hoped would absorb rural migrants and provide them with livelihoods. For example, the Eastern Sichuan Chemical Engineering Corporation in Wanxian took on 500 rural migrants from the Three Gorges area but, due to hard times, these people lost their jobs and the Chongqing municipal government had to come up with hundreds and thousands of yuan to help them survive.

As well, little attention was paid to the performance records of local businesses and their capacity to absorb migrants. In fact, some businesses were already in dire straits before they took on migrants. Others weren’t suitable to receive migrant workers due to poor business performance and a lack of development potential.

Rural country-to-city migrants I interviewed in the county seat of Yichang, expressed their dissatisfaction with the way some businesses offered to take in migrant workers in order to obtain resettlement funding, which they would use to pay employees, even spending on personal concerns. A number of migrants requested that the production resettlement funds given to employers, be given to them instead so they could use it to become self-employed. But employers are often unable to return the money because they have already spent it. The head of one particular factory told a migrant worker that he could take the machine he was using home if he wanted his production resettlement fund back. The machine, however, was secondhand, it was also useless and ended up as scrap metal when the factory closed.

During the course of our survey in Yichang County, some business managers were accused by migrants of squandering their resettlement funds on private cars and mobile phones. Our findings led us to conclude that widespread corruption has certainly had a direct impact on resettlement schemes. After interviewing 55 country-to-city Three Gorges migrants, more than half of them felt that corruption had a substantial impact on the resettlement process: 95 per cent acknowledged that they were aware corruption had in some way influenced the process.

The majority of these respondents indicated a lack of confidence in local governments and the authorities that receive resettlement funding – 88 per cent of them would prefer to keep the funding themselves rather than risk leaving the handling of these monies to the appointed trustees.

Migrants have good reason to distrust officials’ handling of their monies. In January, 2000, China’s Auditor-General announced that about 12 per cent of the entire Three Gorges budget for resettlement funds had been embezzled in a single year. In fact, a string of government officials have been sentenced to death or long prison terms for corruption in relation to the Three Gorges project. They include Chen Kejie, former vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress – the highest-ranking government official to be given the death penalty.

2.3 The city is not so good

As far as migrant workers are concerned, finding employment after being laid-off is difficult because they are characterized as poorly educated and lacking in professional training and skills. They also have less work experience and social connections compared to the urban jobless. One migrant woman told me: "Without knowledge, without skills, and middle-aged, we cannot do anything but kill time in the city."

For these migrants, there is only a slight possibility of being able to establish their own businesses – given that the production resettlement fund, the capital they would use to set themselves up, has usually already been spent by their former employers.

One of the few jobs readily available to migrants is taxi-driving: ferrying passengers around county towns by motorcycle. But without a driving licence, and given the often poor condition of their vehicles, these drivers risk their lives for this work. They have other problems too. The Public Security Bureau of Yichang County has been trying to limit the number of motorcycle-taxis in Yichang, and even if drivers’ applications are approved, the migrant drivers cannot afford the licence fees charged by the bureau. In any case, they can only earn small sums of money given the deluge of motorcycle-taxis in the area. Rubbish-picking is another alternative source of income, but the rewards are scarce and the work unappealing.

Inevitably, as a result of unemployment, urban migrants’ standard of living has declined. Some complained to me that they survived by dipping into savings or are living on the livelihood subsidy (about 60 yuan per person a month) allocated by relocation authorities. The majority of migrants’ savings have been used to build new homes; the livelihood subsidy was terminated at the end of 1997. Many urban migrants expressed to me feelings of strong dissatisfaction with the higher living costs they experienced in the city. In particular, they find it difficult to support themselves without their own vegetable plots and domestic pigs and chickens, and without the other features of their rural homeland, such as mountain forest. Said one migrant, "[In the city] drinking water, [cooking] oils, eggs, vegetables, transport, everything needs money. We are even charged for rubbish disposal!"

After surveying 54 migrants from Zigui County who had been resettled in urban Yichang, 75 per cent indicated that in terms of job opportunities and household income they were "worse off." And, contrary to the government’s argument that Three Gorges dam represents a chance for rural peasants to escape poverty, 66 per cent of the migrants in our survey disagreed. More importantly, these migrants tended to have less confidence that they could restore their livelihoods compared to migrants who had been resettled in rural areas. A survey of 45 peasants from Zigui County resettled in rural Zhijiang showed that 36 per cent felt that they could recover their livelihoods, with 31 per cent expressing greater confidence in "a better life than before relocation." Meanwhile, 67 per cent of urban Yichang migrants viewed their prospects as "difficult."


Compensation for relocation is important to both the government and to migrants: the government is concerned about compensation as it relates to the total cost of the project. Meanwhile, migrants place high expectations on resettlement compensation and hope it will afford them the financial resources they need to rebuild their lives.

A lack of adequate compensation is a common feature of dam resettlement schemes the world over, and the Three Gorges resettlement scheme is no exception. Financial problems occurred in the first phase of the project between 1994 and 1997, this included an increase in the interest on loans and a decline in revenue generated by the Gezhouba Hydroelectric Power Plant – the first dam built on the Yangtze as part of the Three Gorges project – as well as an increase in Three Gorges administration fees and taxes on imported construction equipment. In the second phase of the project between 1998 and 2003, there appears to be a gap between the demand for resettlement funding and the amount of funding available to supply demand. In an effort to bring resettlement compensation under control, the government initiated a "resettlement funding responsibility system" to reduce the overall cost of the project – this means that when officials designate the amount of resettlement funding for a particular area, the government will not provide more money if the allocated budget runs short.

Compared to other resettlement schemes and past levels of compensation, senior government and project officials have stated that resettlement compensation for Three Gorges migrants is high enough to ensure the adequate resettlement of everyone displaced by flooding. However, junior cadres working for either local governments or relocation departments, complain that financial restraints imposed by the resettlement budget have made mobilizing migrants to move, and building new towns and economies extremely difficult. Other problems include the unchecked expansion of certain resettlement areas, the higher costs involved in urban relocation and funding problems in the creation of industrial enterprises to absorb migrant workers.

As well, both rural and urban migrants report feelings of dissatisfaction with the resettlement process. Among their concerns: They were not allowed to participate in the resettlement and compensation policymaking process, the production resettlement fund has not fulfilled its role in reconstruction activities and has not afforded migrants the ability to rebuild their former economic lives; compensation is not sufficient enough to allow migrants to build new homes for themselves after relocation, and corruption has siphoned off significant amounts of funding that should have been spent on migrants. Delays and reductions in resettlement compensation have adversely affected disbursement of monies and development projects related to resettlement schemes, causing migrants to suffer a loss of confidence in the government and their chances for a better future.

Overall, urban migrants tend to have less confidence in the restoration of their livelihoods than rural migrants. Although the prospect of increased economic and education opportunities and improved public services and facilities in urban areas are attractive to migrants, the reality of the country to city move has left many migrants feeling worse off. This is largely due to so many of them having lost their jobs in industrial projects designed to provide work for them. Once unemployed, they are at a greater disadvantage than the urban jobless when it comes to finding other work: migrants tend to have less in the way of education and work experience to offer, and haven’t had time to develop comparative urban social networks. The higher cost of living in cities and towns has also made economic life harder for urban migrants.

Meanwhile, the majority of rural migrants who have been resettled at higher elevations in nearby areas are dissatisfied with their replacement land. The new land is often overdeveloped and there is frequently not enough suitable land for farming to go round.

Migrants who were resettled further away reported a more varied experience. Some were given unsuitable land or, because of China’s landholder rights system, did not qualify for better-quality land or access to fishponds, mountain forest and other land to cultivate cash crops. As well, the relationship between host communities and migrants can be a strained one given the pressures and sacrifices they both endure. These conflicting interests have had a deep impact on the land for land strategy, often resulting in a decline in migrants’ income.

The risk of impoverishment is due not only to insufficient relocation compensation, a reduction in the size and quality of farmland and to unemployment in urban areas, but also due to the marginalization of migrants during the migration process. For instance, in the Three Gorges area, peasants lost important economic resources, such as orange groves, and they were often unable to transfer their former source of income from one place to another. After resettlement, migrants’ previous skills and work techniques, even their production tools, can become redundant due to a difference in production methods. Although some migrants were able to find new economic opportunities, most experienced a decline in earning capacity during the transition period. A large number of migrants experienced a shortage of money because they overspent on rebuilding their new homes. There is a tendency to want to improve on former levels of accommodation but due to the limited amount of compensation they received for their old homes, migrants drew on savings, even borrowing money from others, to rebuild their homes. As a result, housing standards have improved for a number of migrants but their incomes and standard of living have otherwise declined.


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Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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