Dammed by the state: Displaced Chinese fight for their rights

by Calum and Lijia Macleod

JIANGSU, China — Last August, the great Chang river (formerly known as the Yangtze) washed a modern day Noah’s Ark from the heart of southwest China to the mouth of the Yellow Sea. Crowded aboard the ferry were 800 peasant farmers, nursing children, animals and seedlings on their three-day voyage to a new world, far from the floods that will inundate their homes and ancestral lands.

At 175 meters high and 2.24 km long, the $25 billion Three Gorges Dam is the mother of all building sites.

But God was not up to his old tricks, flushing mankind of its sin. Rather it is the Chinese Communist Party that is playing God, reshaping nature to match its grandest vision, the Three Gorges Dam. Amid the mountain-moving scale of the world’s largest construction site, moving 1.3 million people appears simple for a one-party state that brooks no dissent. Yet their resettlement is fast becoming the most troublesome part of a thoroughly controversial project.

“We’ve been cheated!” complains farmer She Qingshu, nine months after leaving Sichuan province for distant Jiangsu, over 2,000 km downstream. “The government treats us like vagrants, not migrants. There is no way we would have left if we had known how poor conditions were going to be.”

Anger at their treatment spurs She (pronounced “shur”) and other Ark passengers to risk imprisonment in the fight for due compensation. As word filters back home about the broken promises ahead, there is growing reluctance to leave among almost a million people still to be moved. Observers fear increasing use of force to silence protest and exert the CCP’s will over a project blighted by corruption and scant respect for human rights.

For the past decade, She had seen the warning signs marching up the riverbank, counting down his fate. Concrete markers pinpoint the Chang’s relentless rise toward his village in Guling township, Yunyang, a poor county doomed by the dam. By 2003, the river will swallow the 135-meter mark. By 2009, its waters will climb to 175 meters and submerge She’s home beneath a massive reservoir stretching back 590 km from the giant dam wall.

Resettlement dilemma

It may not be a pretty sight. Environmentalists predict that waste water and sewage from cities such as Chongqing will transform the lake into a massive cesspool. Forty year-old She had little choice but to pack up his life and family and climb aboard the government’s resettlement program. Abandoning the steep hills farmed by their ancestors, She and his neighbors sailed China’s longest watercourse to the broad plains of Dafeng County, or Great Abundance, in Jiangsu Province.

Yet problems have been the only commodity in abundance in their new homes, scattered across eight separate villages. With no hills to guide them, the newcomers frequently lost their way. They were equally confused by the local dialect. Their own Sichuan accents invite Dafeng natives to overcharge them for everything from houses to bean sprouts, as the Chinese media reports that Change dam migrants enjoy generous state subsidies. It is a cruel misperception, but government graft is hardest to endure.

“Officials at every level take money from the resettlement funds,” charges farmer Qian Yang. The $4.8 billion relocation budget has proved a windfall to embezzlers throughout the notoriously corrupt Chinese bureaucracy. Beijing acknowledges the loss of at least $244 million, while the intended recipients like Qian and She are left short-changed with payments under 10,000 yuan, one third of their expected compensation.

It had sounded like such a good deal. Millions of migrants leave Sichuan every year with little but the bags on their backs, and dreams of a better life in more prosperous east and coastal China. She was promised compensation, a new house and farmland, free electricity and education for his three children. But he actually received less than the local average of 2 mu (0.13 hectares) per person, and local school bills are double the cost back home.

Beside blinding yellow fields of oil seed rape, She showed a recent visitor around the house he bought for 17,000 yuan in the village of Lefeng, or “Happy Abundance.” The local party secretary happily sold the property to fund his own flight to urban China. The roof may leak, but the house feels spacious until 20 other Ark passengers, chosen as their village representatives, drop by to protest their plight and treatment by an uncaring bureaucracy.

“If we had known more about the policy, we would demand full payment before we left,” claims Li Duanxiang, a 45-year-old farmer and timber merchant. Until a sympathetic official last autumn leaked a copy of the internal handbook used to brief party cadres in Sichuan, the Dafeng migrants were ignorant of their full rights. Despite Beijing’s commitment to join transparent, rules-based systems like the World Trade Organization, the Communist-led administration still thrives on a culture of secrecy. Information control is as powerful as the security forces.

Growing protests

She Qingshu and Li Duanxiang (third and fifth from left) with fellow migrants from Sichuan hold up a government poster detailing their rights as migrants.

She Qingshu and other migrant representatives pay regular calls on Dafeng county officials, who deny the migrants are owed anything, blame their home county for any false promises, and refuse access to the agreement on compensation signed between Dafeng and Yunyang. Lack of communication undermines government arguments that more than half the approximately 30,000 yuan compensation per person was marked for infrastructure development in their new homes. The migrants are adamant they have been tricked.

“This is not a government that truly serves the people,” suggests a Chinese sociologist and resettlement expert who uses the pseudonym Wei Yi, and has studied the Yunyang county case. “Officials serve their superiors and themselves,” he says. “They don’t feel responsible for those below them, so they don’t solve the problems but only suppress them, and shut the mouths of “troublemakers.” Their attitude is, “As long as it doesn’t explode during my term of office, then everything’s fine.”

But the fuse is burning ever shorter. Thousands of people have joined local protests. Dozens of petitioners have traveled to Beijing to beg the central government’s help. While journalists and academics are barred from the most restive townships, credible accounts still emerge of violence and intimidation by the authorities to subdue residents who are unwilling to leave. But rising anger is galvanizing the migrants into organized action. In January this year, Li was among 180 family representatives chosen by the 800 Dafeng migrants to return home up the Chang and confront Yunyang officials about the missing money.

During 36 hours of negotiations, they were given no food or water and slept on the floor of Yunyang city hall. “You are not our responsibility anymore,” Li was told. “Your ‘hukou’ is no longer here,” officials said in reference to the all-important household registration requiring China’s citizens to live and work only in their permanent residence. After berating the returnees for their “illegal” journey home, officials claimed that all necessary compensation had been paid. Nearly 100 policemen forced the migrants to leave.

Tan Tianguo, the Yunyang official responsible for Jiangsu-bound settlers, remembers the incident differently. “When they came, I and other leaders received them, and patiently explained the policy,” he told The Japan Times. “In the end, they all willingly went back to Dafeng. As far as I understand, most of them are happy. An extreme minority deliberately caused trouble, and the others were cheated and fooled by them. There is absolutely no corruption. I can promise you not a single penny was deducted. Who dares to make money illegally from the Three Gorges dam?”

Plague of corruption

Yet as Tan knows full well, over one hundred officials who dared and lost now reside in jail, although hundreds more escape punishment. The temptations offered by the $25 billion project force Beijing into periodic crackdowns against graft, but whistle-blowers are in equal danger. In March this year, police arrested four elderly farmers from Gaoyang township who dared to reveal the coercion and corruption endemic in the resettling process. Seized while petitioning the central government in Beijing, they are charged with “disturbing public order,” “leaking state secrets” and “maintaining illicit relations with a foreign country,” i.e., talking to the foreign press.

Their real crime was a brave and principled stand against officials who bullied migrants, withheld compensation and lined their own pockets by exaggerating the number of people to be moved and land to be submerged. Running a similar risk of imprisonment, Li Duanxiang and She Qingshu followed their fruitless return to Yunyang in January with an equally frustrating trip to Beijing.

Many Chinese retain a naive hope that if only a righteous, high-ranking official could read their heart-rending petition, he would punish the venal officials at the rice-roots level. Unlike the literary traditions that nurture such hopes, happy endings are rare. “We are doing this both for ourselves and many others, so the migrants can get what they deserve,” says Li of his stubborn quest for justice. “We still have some money and food, but what will happen in the next six months, when the money has run out? We may end up in the street begging!”

That courage to fight for one’s rights spells trouble for the Chinese Communist Party. Less than 20 percent of the 1.3 million people slated for relocation have left their homes. One thousand more Yunyang residents arrived in Jiangsu province this month at the crest of a “high tide” of migrants to be dispatched to 11 provinces and cities over the coming year. While the pressure builds with the countdown to the water level rise in 2003, observers like Wei Yi and human rights watchdogs abroad fear the party will adopt ever more ruthless tactics to keep its dream on track.

The success of the Three Gorges Dam is central to the party’s promise to deliver a strong and prosperous China, without recourse to a popular mandate. The project has fascinated generations of nation-builders. In 1919, Sun Yat-sen, the “father of modern China,” first proposed damming the Chang. In 1956, Chairman Mao Zedong sparked four decades of feasibility studies with a poem urging China to “Build a Stone Wall in the River.” The great Sichuan survivor, Deng Xiaoping, finally took the plunge.

Yet the 1989 bill to dam the river at Sandouping in Hubei, close to the Sichuan border, drew the first negative votes ever cast at China’s normally compliant “parliament,” the National People’s Congress. In a muzzled political system and society like China, the opposition of one-third of NPC delegates was unprecedented. Critics charged that official arguments — improved flood control, navigation and power generation — did not hold water.

Nor do some of the many dams erected throughout China since the Communists took power in 1949. After years of secrecy, details emerged in the 1990s of disasters such as the crumbling dams of Henan province in 1975, when up to 230,000 people may have died. Some experts expressed concerns about the future safety of the 400 million people living downstream of the Chang dam, but the country that built the Great Wall does not shirk a challenge. With political prestige and global bragging rights at stake, the bill was passed to build the world’s largest dam, and work began five years later.

The dam provides a 1.6 km-long concrete lesson in the power of a one-party state, where free debate remains intolerable. No one is permitted to challenge even the most basic premise — such as whether China needs so much additional, expensive electricity, given the over supply of cheap power elsewhere in the country. But the project also reveals growing activism in China’s countryside, where peasants are empowered by better access to knowledge, and emboldened by greater belief in their rights.

An old story in China

The ark reaches land — a ship of Sichuan settlers, displaced by the dam, docks near Shanghai last August.

In the first four decades of Communist rule, more than 10 million Chinese evacuated their homes to make way for dam and reservoir projects. Most received small one-off payments and were left to fend for themselves. In 1989, the Ministry of Agriculture admitted that roughly 7 million remained in “extreme poverty.” With the world watching, Beijing could not be so cavalier with the Chang migrants. But the more reasonable the Chinese government attempts to be, and the more open its policies, the more its people protest failures in implementation.

“Before the 1980s, those who were resettled knew very little about policy,” comments sociologist Wei Yi. “But since then, telecommunications and television have brought crucial changes. People can now watch central government leaders saying they will protect the settlers’ rights. Then they can call friends and relatives who have moved to other areas to discover the real situation.”

But if a Chinese citizen probes the shortfall between propaganda and reality, he soon discovers the government’s tolerance threshold remains minimal. The response to peaceful protests against any aspect of the Three Gorges Dam has been predictably harsh. He Kechang, one of the four would-be petitioners arrested in March, is reported to be ill after beatings at police hands.

His wife Xiong Dezhen has been warned by Yunyang county officials to expect a heavy sentence at his imminent trial. “They say his mistakes are ‘very serious.’ I’m scared to death,” Xiong said in an interview this week. “My husband smuggled out a note saying his health was bad, and he is afraid he can’t survive for much longer,” she sobbed. “He asked our son to look after his grandmother.”

Like relatives of the other three men, Wen Dingchun, Jiang Qingshan and Ran Chongxin, Xiong has been denied all access to her husband since their arrest. “This is illegal,” notes Wei Yi. “And so is preventing them from handing a petition to higher authorities. The government says this ‘shangfang’ method is a legal channel for complaint.” But to silence dissent China’s authorities can twist every law at their disposal, and trump up charges like “leaking state secrets.”

Ruled by a party operating far above the law, Chinese have little faith in their courts and legal system. The incarceration of four farmers protesting against corruption underscores the recent, shameful failure of the European Union to support American censure of China’s human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Beijing continues to abuse its citizens’ rights with impunity.

Back in Dafeng, She and Li are downcast at news of He’s impending sentence. “I trusted the government would deliver what they promised,” says Li. “Everybody cried when we had to leave the land where we lived for generations. I had to sell our pigs and furniture so cheaply. We made such a sacrifice, but we were treated so badly.”

Unlike migrants who moved to areas closer to their original home, Li admits he jumped at the chance of a berth on the “pilot scheme” for resettlement in Jiangsu. Most experiments of China’s reform era conjure visions of spectacular development. Dafeng, one of Jiangsu’s poorest counties, is a far cry from Shenzhen, the booming economic zone near Hong Kong, or the model neighborhood near Shanghai that state media showcased last year as the shiny new home of the first batch of Yunyang migrants. But when the province is one of China’s richest, even Dafeng’s per capita incomes are several times the 1,200 yuan average in Yunyang.

Sichuanese are resourceful, independent people. They should find a way to survive, and hopefully prosper, in an alien place dubbed the “land of fish and rice,” despite discriminatory hiring practices at some local factories. In common with countless farmers across China, the new arrivals are keen to leave the land. Many already boast sideline experience as cooks, drivers and laborers. She had worked as a cook near the dam headquarters in Yichang, though he finds his new neighbors averse to spicy Sichuan cuisine.

She is grateful to the head of the local production team, who teaches him how to grow oil seed rape and other unfamiliar crops, but like many of his fellow migrants She refuses to settle properly until “justice has been done.” This determination to get their due threatens further clashes with bureaucrats who believe their duties are fulfilled.

“As far as I know, the majority of them are happy,” Hong Weixin, a Dafeng official responsible for resettlement, told The Japan Times. “I have been to their homes and they have settled very well,” Hong declared. “I don’t know who promised them free schooling, it’s not included in the agreement,” he said of one of the migrants’ fondest hopes, inflated by gushing state media reports. “On average, their land is the same as the local people. Maybe some got more than others, but we did our best to help them,” Hong sighed. “Peasants are peasants, after all.”

Peasant rage on the rise

She Qingshu is almost immune to such prejudice after months of hunting for accountability in fancy government offices, often built with resettlement funds. When only lip service is paid to press scrutiny or public oversight, people in power can easily ignore the complaints of China’s lowliest class. Yet despite the odds, China’s peasants are standing up to challenge the elite. In incidents from east to west, they rage against greedy officials, excessive taxation, and misappropriation of resources. And in growing numbers that could soon terrify Beijing.

Like most Chinese farmers, these are unlikely dissidents. She Qingshu and He Kechang are not blocking progress as solidified in the monstrous Three Gorges Dam. They ask only for Beijing to keep its word, and ensure fair implementation at the rice-roots level. But under the present political system, that is asking for the impossible.

“We don’t oppose the government,” affirms tractor driver Shui Yuancun on a visit to She’s home. “The policy is good. The Three Gorges Dam will bring many benefits, such as cheaper power and better water control, with no disadvantages at all.” Shui and the rest of China have more pressing concerns than the disappearance of the world-renowned Three Gorges scenery.

“I don’t usually say much,” Shui adds, looking down at his frayed sneakers. “If you allow us enough to eat, peasants will never make trouble; but now, we can’t go on living. I am over 50, I’ve got nothing to lose,” he says, his voice rising with long-suppressed rage. “I will go to Tiananmen Square and make the people of Beijing listen to the angry peasants’ voice. I will wear a white cloth, cut three holes for my head and arms, and write on the front, ‘Central government, solve our problems correctly! The Yunyang county sky is dark. We want to see the sun again!’ “