Page 1 of 2 CHINA'S SORROW, CHINA'S
EMBARRASSMENT The great relocation that failed
By Peter Lee
the first article in a two-part
The world has been transfixed by the fate of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu
Xiaobo, now serving an 11-year sentence for his advocacy of democracy and
opposition to the Chinese Communist Party's single-party dictatorship.
However, a less-known case - the detention of investigative journalist Xie
Chaoping - provides another perspective on the rise of Chinese civil society.
It also illustrates the difficulties China faces in righting a wrong, even when
the party's survival and the national interest are not seen to be at risk.
In August, Xie Chaoping was detained by the Public Security Bureau of Shaanxi
province's Weinan City in a fit of pique over
Xie's devastating, detailed and closely argued expose of municipal
corruption, mismanagement and arrogance in the execution of relocation and
disaster-relief programs in southeastern Shaanxi, entitled "The Great
Xie's detention provoked an outcry from his family and journalistic peers and
publicity in the Hong Kong and Western press, and he was released after over
four weeks of captivity.
After his release, Xie wrote a moving account of his detention. It shows that,
even when torture and "enhanced interrogation techniques" are removed from the
equation, the age-old cruelty of the jailer and the widespread indifference of
the public to the routine abuse of detainees' bodies and dignity provide ample
means to cow and eventually break the spirit of a prisoner.
Roland Soong translated Xie's account at ESWN:
I thought that they were blatant about enforcing the law violently.
When they arrested me, they cuffed me tightly so that my left shoulder became
swollen and hurt like hell. I asked them for plaster at least 10 times, but
nobody paid any attention to me.
On August 23, we took the train to Xian at the Beijing West Station. Wang Peng
[one of the case officers] marched me through five waiting rooms, pushing and
shoving me hard. I thought that he wanted to break down my psychological
defense this way. I was cuffed to the iron gate by the ticket inspection
entrance for more than 30 minutes. As we were about to board, he wanted to cuff
me from behind. I said, "My arms felt like they are broken already. I won't
run. Don't cuff me from behind."
Wang said that he was only carrying out his duties. I got upset and I said, "If
you cuff me from behind, I am going to kill myself by ramming my head against
the wall." As I said that, I took a step back and got ready. Zhu Fuli [another
of the case officers] came over and held me in his arms. He said, "Old Xie,
don't do that." He then cuffed his left hand to my right hand, and then we
boarded the train.
[In the detention center], we work in the morning until past 11am. In the
afternoon, we were interrogated, sometimes as late as 7pm. When we return to
the cell, there was no meal left. I remember skipping dinner six or seven times
... Once I came back from interrogation and everybody had already eaten dinner
... A 17- or 18-year-old boy crawled over and said to me: "Uncle Xie, you
didn't eat yet? I know that you haven't eaten yet. We got two steamed buns per
person this evening. I saved one for you." I took a bite and tears began to
come out of my eyes. But I felt that a grown man shouldn't be crying. So I
turned my head to the wall and cried.
The police did not torture me to get a confession ...
There were no prison kapos or bullies at the detention center. But the rules
are that newcomers have to sleep next to the toilets, clean the toilets and
wipe the floor. Wiping the floor requires the person to squat down and apply a
rag to the floor. I had back problems. After I wiped the floor for four times,
my back felt as if it was broken. My clothes were soaking wet. I knelt down to
work. The prison guard yelled aloud: "No kneeling." I told the prison warden
that I didn't want to squat, and the prison guard let me off. ...
So I have left the detention center. But I have become more fragile. I cry
whenever I hear the words "steam bun". I cry whenever I think about my wife. I
can never forget the look in my wife's eyes when she rushed out to see me being
taken into the elevator. All the bitterness and sorrow of the world were there.
Xie's detention forms another chapter in a miserable story
that the Chinese government has been fruitlessly trying to bring to a close for
50 years: the disastrous aftermath of the decision taken in 1956 to build a dam
across the Yellow River at Sanmen Xia (Gorge) on the border between Shaanxi,
Henan and Ningxia provinces.
The Sanmen Xia fiasco is exhaustively documented in the book that provoked Xie
Chaoping's detention, his The Great Relocation.
The relocation referred to the moving of 287,000 peasants from the site of the
future reservoir of the Sanmen Xia dam and power station to northern Shaanxi
By 1964, the central Chinese government realized the recently completed dam -
hailed at its commissioning as a monument to Chinese socialist construction -
was a disastrous mistake.
Some 1.5 billion tonnes of silt poured into the new reservoir every year,
rapidly filling it and dooming the dam to obsolescence as a flood-control
measure within a decade. The government repurposed the dam as a power station
and lowered the elevation of the reservoir surface by 32 meters. Since the
unflooded reservoir area - hundreds of thousands of mu (1 mu = 666.7
square meters) of prime farmland - was still reserved as a flood basin, the
Shaanxi government saw no difficulty in permitting state enterprises and the
People's Liberation Army to set up nominally temporary farms in the reservoir
There was one problem: the displaced peasants wanted their land back.
In the 1950s, the area near Sanmen Xia seems to have been a virtual arcadia,
with bumper harvests of cotton and wheat and incomes far above the national
The government had encouraged relocation with the fervor usually reserved for
preaching the Crusades under the slogan "Relocate one family to succor a
thousand families". Crucially, local government officials promised that, based
on central government assurances, the peasants' living standard in the new
lands would be "at least" as good as that they had enjoyed in their original
Led by activists and patriots, the peasants inhabiting the future reservoir
site voluntarily decamped to new residence areas arranged by the government.
Instead of a new Eden, in the loess plateau of northern Shaanxi and the deserts
of Ningxia, the migrants found poverty, neglect, disdain and death.
One of the first advance teams dispatched to Ningxia discovered their
"farmland" was a waterless wasteland and their "homes" five-foot deep roofless
pits dug into the barren earth. On their first night, they experienced the
horrific Ningxia windstorms that flung up sand and stones and not infrequently
buried and suffocated victims unable to take shelter.
The next morning, 34 of the 35 near-hysterical members of the advance party
deserted the venture and started a double-time march through the Ordos Desert
back to Shaanxi. By a miracle, they didn't die of thirst in the desert, but
several members of the party starved to death as the group split up and begged
its way home.
When the ragged survivors made their way back to Shaanxi with their stories,
most were discovered, detained and returned to Ningxia.
Ningxia was undoubtedly the worst destination for Sanmen Xia relocatees. The
virtually insurmountable obstacles to agriculture were compounded by the
nationwide famine of the Great Leap Forward years and many relocated peasants
starved to death.
But northern Shaanxi was not much better. Bereft of water and capital for
improvements and allocated the least desirable land by the unwelcoming and
impoverished locals, the Shaanxi relocatees huddled in loess caves carved out
of the hillsides, scratched a meager living out of the barren soil, and
resentfully recalled their previous, prosperous life along the banks of the
Yellow River. Risking interception, detention and return, individuals tried to
sneak back to the reservoir area by the thousands.
The relocated peasants then learned their precious land was being occupied by
large-scale state farms and farmed by soldiers and city folk. The sense of
betrayal engendered by the false promises of good land in northern Shaanxi and
Ningxia was compounded by awareness of the futility of their sacrifice and rage
at the loss of their lands.
This mix of anger, entitlement and mistrust spawned one of the most remarkable
mass movements in the history of the People's Republic: the movement to return
to the lands of the unflooded reservoir basin, known in Chinese as the "fan ku"
("return to reservoir") movement.
From the mid-1960s until the 1980s, under a succession of able, committed and
risk-taking leaders, the Shaanxi "migrants" (or "yimin" as the relocated
peasants came to be known) pushed the envelope of permissible dissent and mass
action to the limit in a series of high-stakes confrontations with the local
Virtually every spring, thousands of migrants poured into the reservoir area to
seize and plant the land they considered to be theirs by right.
As the years wore on, the campaigns became more organized and effectively
executed, with propaganda, medical and security teams accompanying thousands of
farmers and their "commanders" into the farmlands in banner-waving,
slogan-shouting caravans of farm tractors and marchers. Within the reservoir
zone, they planted crops, built shantytowns and roads and muscled their way
into state farm buildings and facilities for use as command centers.
The migrants were bitterly opposed by the local government, which mobilized
local cadres and successfully encouraged the state farm employees to organize
and fight back as the encroaching peasants occupied land and buildings, leading
to a series of bloody battles.
Finally, the most able leader of the migrant "commanders", Liu Hairong,
achieved a double victory.
In 1985, by organizing a second mass march to sweep ancestral graves in the
reservoir area during the Qingming festival, he was able to sustain the migrant
presence in the reservoir area until harvest (in an interesting piece of
farmland etiquette, whenever the migrants were driven out of the reservoir
area, the victorious state farms would plow under the crop instead of
harvesting it themselves, recognizing the principle that the crop belongs to
those who planted it).
In the same year, most remarkably, he was able to broker an alliance between
the migrants and disgruntled workers at the state farms, many of whom were
rusticated city dwellers sick both of farming and the incessant conflict and
anxious to return their home towns. The dismayed local rulers were treated to
the spectacle of 2,000 of their putative allies, the farm workers, besieging
the provincial government offices in Xian for seven days demanding the right to
return to their urban homes.
With the migrants entrenched in the reservoir area and the forces of opposition
crumbling, Beijing summoned the governor of Shaanxi to Beijing and announced a
Crucially, while treating their antagonists in the local government with
defiance and studied insolence, the leaders of the migrant movement had always
carefully represented their struggle to Beijing as a land rights movement, not
a political activity, and maintained continual contact with the central
government and party through petitioning visits known as "shang fang".
In 1984, during the tenure of China's relatively accommodating premier, Zhao
Ziyang, a delegation led by state councilor Sun Wei conducted an exhaustive
40-day investigation of the condition of the migrant peasants in their
miserable resettlement localities. Sun reportedly cried and apologized for the
government's failings during the trip. Since the Chinese oligarchy is not given
to spontaneous tears and apologies, it is tempting to speculate that the
government had already decided to yield to the migrants' demand for land within
the reservoir area.
1985, under a State Council directive, the
civilian and military farms were to give up 20,000
hectares of farmland to 150,000 returning
migrants, based on the calculation that 0.13
hectares of land per person was needed.
Instead of marking the end of the migrants' ordeal, the agreement was in many
ways only the beginning.
In retrospect, it was perhaps unwise to put the execution of the State Council
directive in the hands of the local governments that had opposed the return of
the migrants so bitterly.
The local leaders and cadres reacted with cold fury to their defeat.