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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The relocated people of the Three Gorges

Florence Padovani

Texte intégral

1March 2008

2The Three Gorges Dam is situated in the Yangtze River in central China, bordering the province of Hubei and the autonomous municipality of Chongqing. Its concrete structure was completed in 2003, and since then water has been rising relentlessly. The last of the families will have left their land by 2009, when the dam becomes completely operational. By then the water level will have reached its maximum (175 metres above sea level) and the mechanical ship lifts and turbines will have been completed. Originally planned by Sun Yat-sen in 1919, the project was revived by Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong and finally by Deng Xiaoping, and has always provoked controversy. It triggered fierce debates, both in China and abroad, throughout the 20th century, and was finally adopted by the National People’s Congress in 1992. After this, whilst national opponents had to be more discreet, international NGOs, especially Probe International and International Rivers Network, continued to denounce the project. It was in way that Dai Qing, the daughter of a Party dignitary and a freelance journalist who became the leader of the project’s opponents, was able to continue voicing her opinion. Since the 1980s, she has not stopped challenging the legitimacy of this dam.

3The active opponents are, first and foremost, intellectuals. They are mainly critical of the destruction of archaeological sites, safety issues (such as construction in a seismic zone), the pollution of water, which no longer flows freely and not taking the human cost into account. They claim that three small dams (or a lower dam) could have produced as much electricity without displacing so many people. Local residents set up petitions, but on the whole, they resigned themselves to the dam.

4For the supporters of the project, the dam was mainly a question of producing energy, which China is in dire need of, by diversifying the means of production. The dam should generate 17,680 MW, and this energy is cleaner than that of coal-fired thermal power plants and less dangerous than nuclear power plants. It is also obvious that, in the eyes of China’s leaders, “the biggest dam in the world” gives the country prestige.

5One could have imagined that, faced with the relentlessness, those who had opposed to the dam within the Party would have kept quiet for good. However, the debate took a new turn in October 2007 following official statements that were published in the Chinese press and widely circulated by the international press. For a month articles on the subject were published in Chinese newspapers almost everyday.

6On the eve of the opening of the 17th Congress of the Communist Party of China, the press agency, Xinhua, reported some comments made by the Vice Mayor of Chongqing, Yu Yuanmu, announcing the relocation of 4 million people following the completion of the Three Gorges Dam (on 11th October 2007). As the estimations in 1992 for population relocation had been around 800,000, a figure that has today been re-evaluated to around 1,2 million, it was astonishing that an official source reported 4 million. The opponents put forward a figure of more than 2 million, but in reality it was closer to 1,8 million. Doubling the estimation seemed incomprehensible. After the publication of articles reporting the Vice Mayor’s comments, a statement was released to the public indicating that his comments had been misinterpreted.

7The controversy focused on the fact that the job of relocating flood-hit populations had still not been finished, but it also focused on ecology-related issues. Premier Wen Jiabao emphasised that the importance he attached to the protection of the environment on several occasions. The opponents thought they could use this attachment as a means of making themselves heard. Pollution generated by factories, mines and as a result of the lack of sewage systems, poured into the Yangtze River. It is now in the reservoir, making life difficult for the residents. Chinese specialists have recorded the toxicity of the water, but it seems extremely difficult to find a solution. Besides, the municipality of Chongqing cannot cover the additional financial cost inferred by preventing pollution. Furthermore, the recent rise in the number of landslides is an additional cause for concern. It is interesting to note that the aforementioned information was provided by officials from the municipality of Chongqing themselves during speeches or official interviews. The statement of the Chongqing Vice Mayor cited above was made a few weeks after the publication of comments made by Wang Xiaofeng, director of the State Council Three Gorges Construction Committee, indicating that major problems were endangering the environment and could have serious, long-term consequences for the local population.

8Therefore, it seems that between September and the beginning of the Congress, criticism of the dam was allowed and that top officials did not hesitate to denounce the existing problems. Yet, in spite of these public protests, the central government did not react.

What is really going on?

9The comments made by the Vice Mayor of Chongqing are an acknowledgement of the major problems that exist in the Three Gorges region. First and foremost, the problem is of the displacement of the population. According to the objective of the project, it was anticipated that only 10% of the relocated people would have to leave their home district, whilst 90% would settle on the hills, below an altitude of 600 metres because beyond this, crops can no longer grow normally and fruit trees wither. A first group of residents was moved to the slopes of the mountain, but it quickly became clear that this was not a viable solution.

10The geography of the region explains the problems that have arisen. Valleys and plains account for 4.3% of the reservoir’s total surface area, hills 21% and mountains 74%. The plans designed in 1992 were called into question by a new regulation, which was adopted in 2001 and specifies that land should not be cultivated on slopes of 25% and above. The steep slopes are prone to regular landslides that frequently occur during the rainy season. These phenomena already existed before the construction of the dam, but it seems that the weight of the mass of water in the reservoir has accentuated the fragility of the soil.

11According to senior officials in charge of population resettlement in the municipality of Chongqing, the case of the people who were moved before the new regulations took force cannot be reviewed for the moment because there are still two other groups of people needing to be relocated. Yet their situation is precarious. Instead of the fertile lands that they were cultivating along the river, they now find themselves in a risky and much less productive area. It has been four years since specialists went to the villages located along the river between Yichang (where the dam is located) and Chongqing to list the dangerous areas. Official documents certifying their danger can be seen on the front wall of certain houses. However, so far, no practical measures have been taken.

12Announcing that 4 million people had to be moved due to the Three Gorges Dam was acknowledgment of the local authorities’powerlessness when faced with the risk of major disaster. It was also a way of asking, once again, the central government to release more funds.

13Making a public declaration before the meeting of the Congress was perhaps one way of drawing the delegates’attention to pending practical issues. However, in 2003 there were big ceremonies to celebrate the completion of the dam, which coincided with the previous Congress. Pleased with the undeniable technical prowess of the dam, national leaders continue to treat the human cost as a secondary concern. For them, it is now all over. For Chongqing’s authorities, on the other hand, the work involved in dealing with both the people that have already been relocated and those who have yet to be relocated is a huge social and financial burden. No special funds have been allocated to help the previously relocated people who are currently living on mountain slopes in fear of their house collapsing any moment. Nor has anything been allocated for those who were already living on the hills. Even though they have to face the same uncertainties, they are not considered, in administrative terms, as having been displaced from the Three Gorges.

14The statements made by the Mayor of Chongqing, Wang Hongju (re-elected on 28th January 2008), have slightly shifted the focus of the debate. He has not denied the problems that exist in the reservoir area, but has insisted on the fact that in fifteen years from now people will willingly leave their villages to go and look for work in the city. However, he has not officially refuted his deputy’s remarks; he has put the emphasis on a nationwide phenomenon that has been taking place in China since the 1980s, that of the drift away from the countryside in favour of the cities. The Three Gorges region, due to its isolation, did not witness this migratory movement as quickly as other provinces. For the past decade, local senior officials have encouraged this phenomenon, regarding it as a way of developing the villages thanks to the money earned by the economic migrants. Studies carried out by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences indicate that the majority of young people looking for jobs remain in their native province. Chongqing has already attracted many of them and is likely to continue to do so, even if its economic activity does not allow for the absorption of such a large quantity of unskilled manpower.

15The arrival of a new Party Secretary, Bo Xilai (December 2007), will perhaps give rise to a new approach to the matters linked to the dam. It is a decisive test for his future career and one hopes that he will be eager to find solutions. His experience as Minister of Commerce and Mayor of Dalian will come in useful for developing the local economy. Nevertheless, it seems highly unrealistic that he will be able to resolve the issues that are currently pending without a sizeable financial contribution from the central government.

16As for the families who have been displaced and are now far away from their native village, some have been luckier than others. Shanghai is considered to be a good destination, but the majority of young people (those under 40 years old) have gone to look for job opportunities in other cities or have returned to Chongqing to earn a living, supported by the networks that they have maintained back there, as competition in the unqualified job market in Shanghai is very tough. The situation is even more difficult for those who were relocated to the province of Jiangsu, and many families are more destitute now than before. Senior officials have abandoned certain destinations such as Hainan Island and the Xinjiang province.

17Discussions about the human cost of the Three Gorges Dam resettlement are not on the agenda and it is unlikely that the fate of displaced people will improve significantly in the near future.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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