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Peasants 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 to leave.

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 the world.

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.

Hydropower 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 atmosphere.

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.

Some 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.

"I 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.

The new 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.

Each 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.

Near 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 rocks.

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 and frustration.

"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.

In 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 resettlement.

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.

As 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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