(May 3, 2009)
By: Dai Qing
Strange and ridiculous things can happen in today’s China, and here is a good example. A purely academic work, a sociological study of the impacts on about 20,000 people of a small dam built 30 years ago in southwest China, was published in a modest print run of 7,000 copies as part of the Harvard-Yenching Institute monograph series and, within six months, was banned by the Chinese government. Even in that short period of time, the book had become widely read, its reputation spreading rapidly by word of mouth not only in mainland China, but also in Hong Kong, Taiwan and beyond. Readers in China and abroad were impressed by the author’s ability to penetrate the lives of ordinary people and reveal the inner workings of Chinese society through his detailed accounts of struggles between individuals and authorities at all levels.
Of the 50 or so academic works that have appeared in the series put out by the Harvard-Yenching Institute, which selects the projects it supports with great care, this book is one of the best read. It is also the only one that has been banned in China. Why has this book attracted so much attention? Who is the author, and what story does he tell?
Some would say that Ying Xing is really telling the story of the Three Gorges dam in his book. Certainly, people in China are eager to read about the big dam from a different perspective than the one, officially sanctioned point of view promoting the project. This book is so appealing because the author, though very young, possesses keen insight into Chinese society and people’s lives. His supervisor also deserves praise — a well-known scholar who guided and inspired his student to do a wonderful job. Intellectuals and academics such as the author have become precious in China, as rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns, surrounded as they are by many others who aspire only to get close to the centres of power, and to achieve personal prosperity.
There was another reason Ying Xing produced this book. Nobody knows quite why the Communist Party of China decided that PhD students from the prestigious think-tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, should be dispatched to the countryside to be tempered by the experience of working for a while as local officials, particularly at the county level. Many young scholars see this as a golden opportunity to make the transition from academe to a promising political career, and some have already followed this path to become career politicians.
But Ying Xing seized the opportunity to gain a better understanding of rural China, not because of any political ambition but out of genuine academic interest. Here was a young man from the city who knew little about life in the countryside but felt a deep sympathy for rural people, many of whom are still mired in poverty and misery. As it turned out, he was sent to Yunyang county in Chongqing municipality. This is one of the counties most affected by the Three Gorges project, with more than 120,000 people forced to move to make way for the dam. He was given the option of working in one of three fields: agriculture, education or Three Gorges resettlement. Without hesitation, he chose to work as an aide to the vice-governor in charge of resettlement.
The county level occupies a place of special importance in China’s political landscape and bureaucratic system. For more than 2,000 years, the governor of a county has been the representative at the grassroots level of the country’s top leaders. After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the county became the lowest administrative unit entrusted with state functions such as tax collection, and maintaining public order and social stability. The county is also the lowest level to which funds are allocated by the central government.
As an aide to the vice-governor in charge of Three Gorges resettlement in the county, Ying Xing had privileged and timely access to key policy decisions taken by Beijing. He was also able to review old records and documents, and to communicate freely with the local officials responsible for resettlement in towns and villages throughout the county. He was in an ideal position to gain insider knowledge about a highly political project that normally would remain closed to outsiders.
While Ying Xing was working on Three Gorges resettlement, he began to gather tales of woe about an older dam in the area. He focuses his account on that dam, the Dahe, which was built on a tributary of the Yangtze River between 1970 and 1975 without so much as a basic feasibility study, let alone adequate resettlement planning or proper treatment of the displaced people. Now the Dahe dam, which stands 150 metres above sea level, will be entirely submerged by the Three Gorges reservoir as it rises in the next few years to 175 metres above sea level. About 4,000 people were relocated for Dahe, and many of them are being moved again for Three Gorges. The Dahe migrants’ miserable experiences give a sense of the suffering that has been endured by the tens of millions of people who have been displaced by China’s 80,000 dams and reservoirs.
Dams have become a major flashpoint in relations between the government and people, with uncertainty and controversy swirling around other schemes, such as those planned for the pristine Nu River and spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan province. In late 2004 alone, at least three shocking events in the Yangtze River area were connected in some way to dams. In September, about 200 people died and millions were affected when violent rainstorms pounded southwestern China for days on end; television images showed torrents of water spewing over the Three Gorges dam, which was put on alert as reservoir water levels surged above warning levels. (One of the hardest-hit areas, Kaixian county, not far from the Dahe dam, was also the site of the December 2003 blowout of the Gaoqiao natural gas well, which spewed poison fumes that killed 243 people, according to the official toll.)
In October 2004, a minor altercation between pedestrians on a street in Wanzhou, in the heart of the Three Gorges area, flared into a mass riot involving tens of thousands of people. (The city has been plagued by high unemployment and simmering social tensions since being rebuilt on higher ground to accommodate some of the people displaced by the Three Gorges dam.) And then, in November, as many as 100,000 local people protesting against the Pubugou dam in Hanyuan county, Sichuan province, forced work on that project to grind to a halt.
When something big happens in China, it has become routine for the authorities to try to conceal the truth and stifle sources of accurate information. Amid this lack of transparency, it is often difficult to know how or why certain political decisions have been made. What we do know at the moment is that the central government has decided to temporarily halt construction work on the Pubugou dam, and also to earmark an additional five billion yuan (more than US$600 million) to deal with problems stemming from the mass population resettlement for the Three Gorges project, one of the toughest issues surrounding the big dam.
The government’s decision to suspend work on the Pubugou dam, which looks to be a temporary measure, also appears to be something of a conciliatory gesture toward the people. But it is also the case that many things remain unchanged in China. The political system has undergone little significant reform, and big dams are still being built to produce personal benefits for the powers-that-be. Administrative orders still come from on high, and local residents enjoy few rights to do anything other than comply. People with perfectly legitimate grievances have no option but to appeal to higher authorities for help – or to create a disturbance in order to survive.
To learn more about what goes on behind the scenes in China, this book about the ruinous consequences of one small dam is an excellent place to start. The author is particularly good at tracking the interactions among the high-ranking officials who control the purse strings in such projects, the dam builders who benefit from the schemes, the local officials who pocket money earmarked for population resettlement, the affected groups who suffer so much, and the many other players who really have nothing to do with the projects, but seek to profit from them. Ying Xing’s book provides a rare window onto the relationship between ordinary people and the unelected officials who hold sway in the Chinese countryside.
In fact, struggles between officials and local people in China are occurring not only around dams, but also in Beijing, which is charging ahead with development in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, and in Shanghai, where the economy is expanding at breakneck speed. With The Story of the Dahe Dam describing events of a kind that are occurring all around the country, it is an opportune moment to present the English translation of this book, for all those with an interest in China, and its society, its politics and uncertain future.
Categories: Three Gorges Probe
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