Relocation for Giant Dam Inflames Chinese Peasants

by Julie Chao
Palm Beach Post
May 15, 2001
He Kechang retired to a village above the Yangtze River hoping to spend
his last years with his family working their half-acre of land. But as
construction started on the Three Gorges Dam about 200 miles down river,
the former ship worker found himself slowly drawn into a morass of
deceit and corruption.

The government sent millions in tax money to the town of Gaoyang to relocate 13,000 farmers and make way for the dam. But He and his family never saw their share.

Instead, they saw officials spend the money on impressive new buildings for the government and police. He turned up evidence that officials artificially inflated the number of residents and amount of land to collect more money from the central government while denying farmers their rightful compensation.

He, 61, felt compelled to act. He collected documents, got petitions signed and traveled several times to Beijing to lodge complaints and seek out journalists. Sometimes he went at his own expense, sometimes with donations from villagers who gave what they could afford.

"My son tried to tell him, if a farmer tries to seek justice from the government, the only possible outcome is failure," said his wife, Xiong Dezhen. "But he didn't listen."

For his troubles, He is sitting in jail with three other men, all in their 50s and 60s, all informally elected as village representatives and now charged with disturbing the public order. They are awaiting the outcome of a trial in Yunyang.

The four are among thousands who have traveled to Beijing and provincial capitals to expose graft and appeal for help. However, He and his colleagues are the first to be arrested for doing so.

In an area that is already seething with anger at official corruption, the arrests may serve only to ratchet up the tensions. While the state-run Chinese media reports on how smoothly the resettlement is going, demonstrations and clashes between peasants and officials have been reported in the foreign media. One local official in charge of resettlement has been murdered.

Volatile Social Problem

The controversial $25 billion Three Gorges Dam project has drawn worldwide attention for the potential environmental problems it may cause. Now, as China carries out the huge task of resettling 1.3 million to 1.9 million people by 2009, almost half of them farmers, experts fear the relocation issue could boil over into a volatile social problem.

Many of those being forced to move say they are not opposed to the dam itself, which the government says will generate electricity, help flood control and improve navigation. When completed in 2009, it will be 1.4 miles long, qualifying as the world's largest hydroelectric dam.

But as the deadline draws nearer, farmers say officials are increasingly resorting to coercion and intimidation to get them to move. In Gaoyang, located in Yunyang county, many said they recently started spending their days hiding in the fields to avoid being detained or forced to agree to compensation they believe is less than they are due.

A Beijing sociologist who uses the pseudonym Wei Yi for fear of government retribution warned that the area could become "a hotbed for constant social instability." Wei's blunt comments, published two years ago in a mainstream political journal, offered a rare critique of a government program.

Local officials were emboldened to take an even harder line in February after Beijing issued new regulations saying people were not allowed to resist moving.

"The local leaders have taken this to mean you're a criminal if you resist," Wei said in an interview. "The new motto of Yunyang officials is 'resettlement by legal means,' meaning they reserve the right to use police to chase the people out."

Probe International, a Canadian group opposed to the dam, and Human Rights Watch have begun jointly monitoring the issue.

In an interview more than a month after the arrests, Qi Lin, director of the government's Three Gorges Resettlement Bureau, said no one had been detained for resisting resettlement or filing complaints. "That's ridiculous," he said. "No government at any level would do something so stupid."

As work on the dam proceeds, opponents say construction quality has been compromised by corruption and lack of oversight. But of all the project's problems, relocation has been the most politically sensitive. While the small number of environmentalists, engineers and archaeologists in China can be silenced, peasants cannot.

Eight hundred people from Yunyang county were moved to Jiangsu province in eastern China last year. They discovered that most of what they were promised—such as free schooling for their children, welfare for the elderly—were lies. Several dozen returned to demand redress and inform their old neighbors, according to farmers interviewed in Gaoyang.

Auditing to Reduce Fraud

Qi, the resettlement official, acknowledged that peasants have complaints. "In one place I visited, more than 100 people surrounded me to ask questions. [On my next trip], I bet there will be 300 people," he said. "One time, someone grabbed my leg and started crying on my pants."

But he said grievances can be addressed through education campaigns, and regular auditing has reduced fraud. By the end of last year, close to 84 percent of the $3 billion allocated so far for resettlement had been audited. Of that, $244 million had been misused or embezzled, Qi said.

One official has been executed, two have gotten life sentences, 133 have received various other sentences and another 140 have been punished with administrative measures, such as losing their jobs or party memberships.

Still, the temptation is almost irresistible for many officials. The state has allocated about $4,000 per person for resettlement, but much of that goes to building roads, hospitals and other public projects. Less than half is intended to go directly to individuals.

The main complaint of those being displaced is the total lack of any open accounting of how the money is being spent.

"I trust the [Communist] Party and I trust the Party has a good policy," said Zhao Heying, wife of Ran Chongxing, one of the four men in jail. "All we're asking is for [the local officials] to carry out Beijing's policy."

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