Rule of Law

Damming dissent: China jails journalist for Sanmenxia dam corruption exposé

(September 14, 2010) The Chinese government continues to muzzle anyone who exposes abuses in relocation programs, writes Brady Yauch.

Government officials in China are continuing to harass critics of the country’s infrastructure projects and the political corruption that often plagues these state vanity projects. Earlier this month, officials arrested Xie Chaoping, a former journalist and recent author of a book about the struggles of the more than 400,000 citizens relocated, first in the 1950s and again in 1985, to make way for Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow river.

In his book, Xie reportedly accuses local officials in Weinan, Shaanxi province of embezzling money intended for the migrants. Xie’s lawyer says the allegations in the book concern the residents who were relocated again in 1985.

While the official charges accuse Xie of “illegal business activities” many of those close to the writer say the real reason for his arrest was the recent publication of his book, “The Great Migration.”

Xie’s daughter, Li Mo, said: “The charge doesn’t make sense. My father didn’t do illegal business. They arrested him for the book.”

“My father just wrote the truth. He didn’t just make up things, everything in this book has evidence. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with the book. It is quite a shock for him to get arrested.”

Xie agrees, according to his lawyer Zhou Ze: “Xie thinks he’s being persecuted because he’s disclosed embezzlement, local government wrongdoing, migrants’ suffering and land disputes.”

“It is another case of abuse of public power to repress public scrutiny and a breach of freedom of publication,” Zhou added.

Li Wanmin, the activist who first told Xie about the migrants’ story, said the book is an objective account of the migrants’ plight, adding that some residents were forced to move eight times and that many of them died of starvation during the major famine in the early 1960s.

Another activist said Xie had recently taken several thousand copies of his book to Weinan, but officials confiscated them.

It’s not the first time Xie has attempted to record the story of the Sanmenxia dam migrants. According to a reporter at the Beijing News, Xie attempted to write about the corruption allegations as early as 2006, but officials pressured his employer, Flash Magazine, to suppress the story.

Xie’s wife told the Guardian that around this time he began collecting material and eventually decided to publish the book himself—with Flash Magazine agreeing to publish his book as a supplement to the magazine if he agreed to pay 50,000 yuan ($7,340).

Chinese authorities may be particularly sensitive to more bad news about forced resettlements right now, as they have just accelerated the forced resettlement of 330,000 people in Hubei province to make way for the controversial South-North Water Diversion scheme that will divert water 1000 kilometres from the Han River to Beijing.  While government officials claim they have learned valuable lessons from failures during previous relocations, particularly Three Gorges, they may be keen to suppress new details of past abuses.

As for the Sanmenxia dam itself—celebrated at the time as a symbol of the new revolutionary China, with its image printed on the country’s banknotes— it’s a textbook example of infrastructure building gone wrong. When officials were making plans for its construction, only one hydrological engineer, Huang Wanli, had the nerve to oppose the project, which he said would result in a major build-up of sedimentation behind the dam due to the high silt load of the Yellow River.

At the time, Huang’s criticism earned him the politically dangerous moniker of being “a rightist” by Mao Zedong and he was sent off for years of hard labour. Not a single publication was willing to publish his concerns.

But Huang was proven right just four years after the dam’s completion, as massive sedimentation clogged its turbines and resulted in a 40 per cent reduction of its water storage capacity.

Even though the dam was quickly rebuilt after its initial construction, the sedimentation problems continued and spread up the river. The dam was eventually blamed for causing the very floods it was built to prevent—with Mao himself saying that if the dam did not work then it should be blown up.

Today, according to the Financial Times, the dam supplies electricity only sporadically and in tiny quantities, despite claims at the time of its construction that it would provide one-third of the nation’s power needs.

“This dam was really a stupid mistake,” An Qingyuan, a former Communist party boss of Shaanxi province, the region most directly affected by the project, told the Financial Times in 2008.

“The Sanmenxia dam has brought severe disasters to the people living near the river and those disasters far outweigh any benefits that might have come from the dam at one time,” he added.

One of the dam’s designers, Zhang Guangdou, said Sanmenxia was “a mistake” that had brought severe flooding and much suffering to the five million people living along the Wei River, a major tributary of the Yellow River 100 kilometres upstream of the big dam.

But more importantly, the Sanmenxia dam—and later the Three Gorges project—both highlight the enormous costs paid when critics are silenced and the rights of citizens are trampled. Many are left worse off, projects underperform, money is wasted, and lessons are lost.  Jailing critics, such as Xie, only serves to perpetuate these mistakes.

(UPDATE) Sept. 17: According to local media, a spokesperson from the Linwei District Procuratorate of Weinan City in Shaanxi Province told local media that after reviewing Xie Zhaoping’s case, they have not approved Xie’s detention due to insufficient evidence. The case has now been returned to the Weinan City Police Bureau for further investigation.

Brady Yauch, Probe International, September 14, 2010

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