bear the brunt of
China's energy plans
By Jasper Becker
Part 1: The death of China's rivers
All along China's Yangtze River, the last
residents have been cleared from the hundreds of towns
and villages that will be submerged in perhaps the
largest hydropower project ever attempted. All along the
600-kilometer stretch of the Yangtze up to Chongqing
city, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, are refusing
They are being forced out in deference
to China's plans to double its hydropower by 2010. China
is preparing to build at least two other dams of equal
size to Three Gorges on the Yangtze. Altogether, Beijing
intends to invest 300 billion yuan (US$36.2 billion) in
new dams, mostly in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.
This is a staggering ambition for a country that
is already home to most of the world's big dams. Of the
45,000 large dams in the world, 22,104 are in China;
6,390 are in the United States and just over 4,000 in
India. In a dictatorship run by engineers, in particular
hydropower engineers such as Communist Party leader Hu
Jintao and the longtime No 2 in the Party, Li Peng, few
critics dare to point out that this policy is causing
irrevocable harm, not just to China but to the rest of
China is planning a series of giant
dam cascades across rivers such as the Mekong, the
Salween and the Bramaputra that are vital to the
prosperity of Southeast Asia. If as a result these
rivers end up disappearing like the Yellow, the Huai or
the Hai in China, the consequences will be incalculable.
The mismanagement of northern China's water resources is
already visible in the dust storms blowing out of China
each year to arrive in Seoul or Tokyo in a dangerous
choking and blinding miasma. Gobi dust from continuing
desertification has even been deposited on the east
coast of the United States.
enthusiasts say that if China does not keep building
dams at a furious rate, tripling capacity from 60
gigawatts to 171GW by 2020, it will be forced to burn
more coal, with dire consequences for the world's
The consequences to China's people
are dire enough. The towns along the Three Gorges look
as if they have been carpet-bombed. More than 1.8
million people have been removed to make way for the
Three Gorges Dam reservoir. As if in some scene from
World War II, bands of scavengers now wander like
homeless refugees amid the piles of gray bricks,
stooping to pick up bits of wiring or wood.
scrap merchants specialize in iron and copper, but
others have collected doors or window frames, so the
traveler climbs up from the ferry boats through a
strange market of bric-a-brac, past half-ruined houses
where some inhabitants linger on like crazed outcasts in
some post-apocalypse movie.
High above old towns
such as Fengjie, blocks of new housing can be glimpsed,
painted in breezy pastel colors. Those hanging on below
are dubbed "nail households" because they refuse to be
uprooted from land they have claimed for generations
and, in a dangerous game of chicken, are hoping to force
the government officials to offer better compensation
before the Three Gorges reservoir starts to cover it.
In Fengjie I met Mr Hong, who brought his family
back from Fujian province where they were relocated to a
newly built Three Gorges migrants' village. He feels he
can earn more money reopening his old restaurant. He
complained of the plague of migrating rodents that
sometimes follow people to their new homes.
don't mean mice - they are about this big," Mr Hong
said, holding out his hands 45 centimeters apart. "Every
night I see them. They get into the bedding tearing up
the quilts and stealing all the food they can find."
Hong was a village leader in the first wave of
migrants sent to Jinxing county, near Airmen in Fujian
province. He led two inspection groups who went to
examine the "migrant village" and came back to tell his
300 fellow villagers how good it was. "If I didn't say
this the others would not go," he said.
settlement covered 30 mu (a mu is a
traditional measurement of land equivalent to 667 square
meters) and each peasant was allocated 0.2 mu
(133 square meters) to farm. Altogether 2,000 were sent
to Fujian province from Fengjie.
"When I went
there the government promised us factory jobs, but when
we got there we found there were no jobs, or only work
with very low pay. We felt cheated," he said. Back in
Fengjie he could earn 1,000 yuan ($120) a month, but
there the most he could earn was 400 yuan.
was each given 9,000 yuan but Hong said they spent that
very quickly. Some 20 percent of those who left returned
to the walls of the Yangtze, complaining they could not
understand the local dialect. "Without that, people felt
that even the simplest thing was very hard," he said.
By March 2002, everyone had had enough and had
prepared a petition. More than 300 took part in a march,
holding aloft banners saying they wanted to go back
home. They marched to the city bus station intending to
take buses. A group of officials from the governments of
Jinjiang, Quanzhou and Fujian province came to see them
and they held a meeting at which the migrants put
forward half a dozen demands including factory jobs, a
monthly dole of 180 yuan and five mu of land to
be used for workshops and a graveyard.
Hong's restaurant was the village of Yaowan, where
terrified villagers described how their protest had
provoked a violent response. On May 20, 2002, the
frustrated villagers had blocked the road through the
village. Elderly villagers sat on rocks placed in the
middle of the road in a peaceful demonstration. But next
day hundreds of police and paramilitary troops equipped
with guns and riot gear arrived. The villagers said the
police also bused in convicts to clear the road of the
Officials say some villagers violently
resisted attempts to disperse them, and the police
detained more than a dozen. In mid-September, three men
labeled as the ringleaders were sentenced by a local
court for "counter-revolutionary agitation". Most of the
others were released, but Wu Guizhen, a peasant in his
30s, was given a five-year sentence. Chen Xuhua, a
peasant in his 60s, received a two-year sentence, and Li
Shangjie, in his 40s, was also sentenced to five years.
The news of the sentences was aired on local television.
"Peasants cannot defy the state," one of the
villagers said to me. "We dare not speak out now, or
we'll be arrested."
Far away at Gangjing
township in Zhongxian county, set next to a beautiful
wooded river gorge, the villagers camping out amid the
ruins of their houses were beside themselves with anger
"They have not paid us the
resettlement money. I think they don't have it anymore
but spent it on other things like building the road,"
said one man who returned from being relocated in Henan
province and was now living in a shack next to his
original house. An old woman nearby was refusing to move
because she said the government owed her 400 yuan in
moving costs, and secondly because she said she could
not afford the cost of housing in the new town.
Compensation was nine yuan per square meter but,
she said, she had to pay 300 yuan per square meter in
the new town that had been built. "Where can I get this
kind of money?" she asked.
Another man, aged
over 80, described himself as an old revolutionary and
raged that he was now not a migrant but a refugee. He
gathered a group of villagers who complained that no
journalists had come to see them to hear their side of
the story. They said they had sent a delegation to
Chongqing but no official had come to investigate. Not
only could they not afford to move to the new town
without ruining themselves financially, they said, but
they complained that they not received any of the
shenghuo fei subsistence payments for as long as
nine months. As result, they said, they were determined
to stay as long as possible even though officials had
warned them that they would taken away in handcuffs if
they did not move.
Their irritation against the
authorities knows no bounds. Go to any of the new towns
built along the Yangtze and the biggest public building
will belong to the police, who can be seen everywhere
driving around in new imported luxury jeeps. One group
of elderly peasants from the remote township of Gaoyang,
Pyongyang county, where more than 100,000 peasants are
losing their land, organized themselves into a pressure
group and came to see me in Beijing in 2000.
They said that in July 1997, 10,000 peasants
supported a petition and since then there has been a
stream of protests, petitions and delegations sent from
Gaoyang to Beijing. In September 1999, some 300 peasants
attacked officials in charge of resettlement, injuring
at least one. In another incident peasants hurled bricks
and injured the deputy party secretary and others. The
township authorities summoned riot police.
2000, more than 1,000 peasants staged protests in
Gaoyang, demanding to meet with county leaders to press
for more equitable compensation and access to official
documents detailing terms and conditions of
The peasant delegates produced
detailed documents showing how they had been cheated out
of their rightful compensation and gave me the petitions
they had sent. These had pages of thumbprints affixed by
illiterate fellow peasants who wanted to express their
anger at the corruption and waste. Within six months,
the men who had come to see me, Went Ding Hun and He
Caching, and three others were in prison serving
three-year jail sentences.
When I went back last
September, the peasants were still angry but terrified
to talk. Yet they were still organizing protests and had
managed to send another delegation to Beijing to see the
resettlement office of the Three Gorges Project
Committee. In this new incident, more than 70 people
left to go to Beijing but were arrested at Damien
railway station in Sichuan. The police allegedly accused
them of belonging to Falungong and sent them home.
Locals said 900 people, who had returned from
being resettled, were living in tents and shacks near
the ruins of the former township and refusing to leave.
Many of them were elderly. Local police had allegedly
descended on them three times, burning their shelters
and beating them in order to force them to leave before
the area is flooded.
The same sort of sad and
pathetic stories could be heard at nearly every county
or small town in the reservoir area. The peasants, among
the poorest people in China, just could not accept that
a state that could spend such gigantic sums on this wall
of concrete was so determined to deprive each of them of
the few hundred dollars that was their due.
in the imperial past when emperors over-taxed their
subjects and press-ganged millions to labor on
astonishing public works such as the Great Wall and the
Grand Canal, the Three Gorges project illustrates how
little has changed in the way China is run.
Tomorrow: Energy quandary
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