By Kathleen E. McLaughlin
August 29, 2011
For a video and slideshow related to the article, see:
CHONGQING, China ï¿½ When China launches ambitious projects to conquer
nature and astound the world, people always get in the way.
Sometimes it's a few dozen people; often it's thousands or even millions.
In the country's headlong drive toward development, moving large numbers
of people quickly and often painfully goes hand in hand with building
the world's biggest dam, the longest stretch of high-speed rail, even
re-shaping whole cities.
In the best-case situations, those who get moved end up with nicer
homes, indoor plumbing, access to services and cleaner living
conditions. The dark side is that frequently the relocated become
internal migrants mired in debt, without farmland or income.
"Eventually, every forced migrant in China becomes a refugee," said Chen
Zongshun, author of an investigative book about the 1.5 million people
relocated for the world's biggest hydropower project, the Three Gorges
Dam on the Yangtze River.
"They're trampling on me. But I'm tough, I can still move a little
with them trampling."
~Three Gorges migrant who now lives in Beijing
A study this spring says demolition and forced relocation are the
biggest flashpoints for social unrest in China, even more than toxic
pollution or labor issues. With an estimated more than 180,000 protests
per year in China, that's certainly not lost on a government that now
spends more on domestic security than its military budget.
Perhaps this level of unrest shouldn't be a surprise when one considers
just how many people have been moved, and lost farms and families in the
process, with little or no recourse. Thousands of them flock to Beijing
every year, seeking redress for lost homes and farmland, often forced
back to the provinces with nothing, or having spent a few days in jail.
Even those thousands displaced for the destruction of old parts of
Beijing had troubles.
In June, official media reported on a study from the Research Center for
Social Contradiction, which called forced demolition and relocations "a
spike point among all conflicts in Chinese society."
This year, China is embarking on its biggest relocation yet: A project
to move nearly 3 million people in central Shaanxi province in part to
get people out of dangerous, crumbling mountains but also to help divert
the Yangtze River north.
It's also continuing a plan to move nearly 400,000 nomads in Ningxia to
cities. Both are billed as alleviating poverty through urbanization. If
history is any guide, there will be problems.
From Beijing to Xinjiang and Shanghai to Yunnan, China's methods of
moving people out of the way for demolition, construction and
development are remarkably similar. They start with logical, seemingly
fair plans for moving and compensation; plans that often break down by
the time the details are implemented on the local level.
Probably the best-known example of this collapse is the resettlement
river town dwellers moved to make way for the Three Gorges Dam on the
Yangtze River, mostly during the 1990s. Here, families who had farmed
and fished for generations were turned almost overnight into city
dwellers, many of them given new homes in provinces thousands of miles
from their hometowns.
Initially, some resettled farmers could be found along the river happy
about getting newer, nicer homes mostly paid for by the government. The
system broke down quickly, however, and vast sums of the money meant to
re-home people whose farms and houses were flooded was embezzled by
government officials. By the end of the resettlement project, complaints
and petitioners were everywhere.
The writer Chen estimates from his research that nearly one-third of
Three Gorges migrants have left their new homes, most of them returning
to Chongqing and the river areas.
Computer tech Chen Liang was 17 when his family was moved from the Three
Gorges area to a city on China's east coast, nearly 500 miles away. Now
24, he's a quasi-legal migrant worker back in the river town where he
grew up. He finished high school in his adopted town, but couldn't wait
to get back to Chongqing and left as soon as he was old enough. His
family, once farmers on the Yangtze, is now spread across the country.
"Nobody really wanted to move from the Three Gorges area. This was
always our home," Chen says. "We already had houses and were told we had
to spend our own money and buy new houses. Nobody wanted it."
Officially, Chen is a registered resident of Jiangsu province. But like
many thousands of Three Gorges migrants, he lives and works back near
his roots around Chongqing.
In May, Beijing took the huge step of admitting there are "major
problems" with how the dam was executed, including problems with the
resettlement of those known as "Three Gorges migrants." Because the
massive dam and reservoir so unsettled the earth, the government now
says it will need to move nearly half-a-million more people out of
The big-show propaganda days of the Three Gorges resettlement are long
gone, however, and those who need to be moved now, in this last wave,
are waiting and going into debt.
In Yunyang, which has been labeled by some Chinese media as a "failed
relocation city," 37-year-old Guan Xiaonian thought he had escaped the
fate of Three Gorges migrants. His family farm was high on a mountain,
in no danger of flooding.
This spring, a landslide tore away part of the home, rendering the place
unlivable. His five-member family now rents an apartment in town, paying
cash out-of-pocket. Guan says he's been promised a few thousand dollars
in resettlement funds from the local government, but the money won't
come until his house is finished and it will take him five years to earn
enough to meet that goal. The government compensation covers less than
one-seventh of the price of buying a new, safe place.
Tens of Dachang residents squat in make shift housing amid the rubble of
their former homes, they say they haven't been properly compensated and
are too poor to move. (Sharron Lovell/GlobalPost)
Here at the western end of Three Gorges reservoir, people like Guan are
called "mountain migrants," as opposed to the "dam migrants." He says
the mountain migrants ï¿½ those half-million needing to move because of
dam-related landslides ï¿½ are in a doubly difficult situation.
"Our situation is worse because we can't afford to buy anything, no
matter what," says Guan, explaining that housing inflation has priced
mountain migrants out of the market.
During the Three Gorges relocation, tiny Dachang village gained a
national reputation for fighting the project. It demanded fair
compensation for villagers who lost homes, and village leaders spent
time in jail for their defiance toward higher officials.
Even today, years after old Dachang was submerged under the Yangtze, its
best-known dissenters remain under heavy scrutiny. One man who lost his
dock and his fortune in the relocation mess had to cancel a planned
meeting with GlobalPost in Dachang because he was warned the day before
against talking to foreign journalists.
Far from home
So far-flung are the Three Gorges migrants that many have ended up doing
seasonal and temporary labor in places like Beijing.
One migrant, who didn't want his name used for fear of retribution,
initially came to Beijing to beg for help from the central government.
He's ended up living here for years, earning money on piecemeal jobs as
a migrant worker. He's also done several stints in jail and says he
can't get a government ID for his 7-year-old daughter. It's a crucial
document that will allow her to attend school and receive other critical
services. He thinks it's retribution, but he also thinks he'll get by.
"They're trampling on me," said the man. "But I'm tough, I can still
move a little with them trampling."
That seems to be the overwhelming attitude across Chongqing among Three
Gorges migrants. Many of those who complained and got in trouble a
decade ago are old or dead; many others have been silenced.
In new towns like Yunyang, Wuxi and Wanzhou, all cities contained within
the megalopolis of Chongqing, development, and life, move on.
You received this message as a subscriber on the list: email@example.com
To be removed from the list, please visit: