JIANGSU, China — Last August, the great Yangtse River washed a modern day Noah’s Ark from the heart of southwest China to the mouth of the Yellow Sea.
Crowded aboard the ferry were 800 peasant farmers, nursing children, animals and seedlings on their three-day voyage to a new life, far from the waters that will inundate their homes and ancestral lands when the ambitious Three Gorges Dam is completed.
Amid the mountain-moving scale of the project, relocating as many as 1.3 million people is fast becoming the most troublesome part of the world’s largest construction project.
Many of those who already have been uprooted claim the Chinese government has failed to pay them the compensation it promised or provide a new home, farmland, electricity and education for their children.
“We’ve been cheated,” complains farmer She Qingshu, nine months after leaving Sichuan province for distant Jiangsu to the east, over 1,240 miles downstream. “The government treats us like vagrants, not migrants. There is no way we would have left if we had known how poor conditions were going to be.”
As word filters back home about the broken promises ahead, there is growing reluctance to leave among almost a million people still to be moved. Observers fear increasing use of force to silence protest and exert Communist Party will over a project blighted by corruption and scant respect for human rights.
The dam, envisioned as early as 1919, has a four-fold purpose: to stop annual flooding along the Yangtse River that last century killed more than 300,000 people; supply hydroelectric power, which by 2009 will provide one-ninth of the power for all of China; improve river navigation; and irrigate land along the river.
China’s leadership believes the dam will boost the nation’s move toward modernity, producing electric power equivalent to the output of 18 nuclear plants. By the time the completed 370-mile reservoir fills up, it will have inundated 244 square miles of farmland.
For the past decade, Mr. She had seen the warning signs marching up the riverbank. Concrete markers pinpoint the Yangtse’s relentless rise toward his village in Guling township, Yunyang, a poor county doomed by the dam.
By 2003, the river will reach the 445-foot mark. By 2009, its waters will climb to 575 feet and submerge Mr. She’s home.
It may not be a pretty sight. Environmentalists predict that wastewater and sewage from cities such as Chongqing will transform the lake into a massive cesspool. About 1,300 archaeological sites will be moved or flooded. Critics contend that the heavy silt in the river will form thick deposits near the upstream end of the dam, clogging the major river channels of the city of Chongqing.
Mr. She, 40, had little choice but to pack up his life and family and join the government’s resettlement program.
Abandoning the steep hills farmed by their ancestors, Mr. She and his neighbors sailed China’s longest watercourse to the broad plains of Dafeng county, or Great Abundance, in Jiangsu province.
With no hills to guide them, the newcomers frequently lost their way to their new homes scattered across eight villages. They were equally confused by the local dialect. Their own Sichuan accents invite Dafeng natives to overcharge them for everything from houses to beansprouts, as the Chinese media reports that Yangste dam migrants enjoy generous state subsidies.
Officials at every level take money from the resettlement funds, farmer Qian Yang says. The $4.8 billion relocation budget proved a windfall to embezzlers throughout the notoriously corrupt Chinese bureaucracy.
Beijing acknowledges the loss of at least $244 million, while intended recipients like Mr. Qian and Mr. She are left shortchanged with payments of less than $1,200, one-third of their expected compensation.
It had sounded like such a good deal. Millions of migrants leave Sichuan every year with little but the bags on their backs, and dreams of a better life in more prosperous east and coastal China.
Mr. She was promised compensation, a new house and farmland, free electricity and education for his three children. But he actually received less than the local average of one-third of an acre per person, and local school bills are double the cost back home.
Beside blinding yellow fields of rape seed grown for oil, Mr. She showed a recent visitor around the house he bought for $2,054 from the local Communist Party secretary in the village of Lefeng.
“If we had known more about the policy, we would demand full payment before we left,” says Li Duanxiang, 45, a farmer and timber merchant.
Until a sympathetic official last autumn leaked a copy of the internal handbook used to brief party cadres in Sichuan, the Dafeng migrants were ignorant of their full rights.
Despite Beijing’s commitment to join transparent, rules-based systems like the World Trade Organization, the communist-led administration still thrives on a culture of secrecy. Information control is as powerful as the security forces.
Mr. Li and Mr. She and other migrant representatives pay regular calls on Dafeng county officials, who deny the migrants are owed anything, blame their home county for any false promises, and refuse access to the agreement on compensation signed between Dafeng and Yunyang.
The lack of communication undermines government arguments that more than half the approximately $3,600 compensation per person was slated for infrastructure development in their new homes.
“This is not a government that truly serves the people,” suggests a Chinese sociologist and resettlement expert who uses the pseudonym Wei Yi and has studied the Yunyang county case.
“Officials serve their superiors and themselves,” he says. “They don’t feel responsible for those below them, so they don’t solve the problems but only suppress them, and shut the mouths of troublemakers. Their attitude is, ‘As long as it doesn’t explode during my term of office, then everything’s fine.’”
But the fuse is burning ever shorter. Thousands have joined local protests. Dozens of petitioners have traveled to Beijing to beg the central government to help.
Although journalists and academics are barred from the most restive townships, credible accounts emerge of violence and intimidation by authorities to subdue residents who are unwilling to leave.
Rising anger is galvanizing the migrants into organized action. In January, Mr. Li was among 180 family representatives chosen by the 800 Dafeng migrants to return home up the Yangtse and confront Yunyang officials about the missing money.
“You are not our responsibility anymore,” Mr. Li says he was told. “Your hukou is no longer here,” officials said in reference to the all-important household registration requiring China’s citizens to live and work only in their permanent residence.
After berating the returnees for their illegal journey home, officials claimed that all necessary compensation had been paid. Nearly 100 policemen forced the migrants to leave.
Tan Tianguo, the Yunyang official responsible for Jiangsu-bound settlers, remembers the incident differently.
“When they came, I and other leaders received them, and patiently explained the policy,” he told The Washington Times. “In the end, they all willingly went back to Dafeng. As far as I understand, most of them are happy. An extreme minority deliberately caused trouble, and the others were cheated and fooled by them. There is absolutely no corruption. I can promise you not a single cent was deducted. Who dares to make money illegally from the Three Gorges dam?”
The temptations offered by the $25 billion project force Beijing into periodic crackdowns against graft, and more than 100 officials have been jailed. Hundreds more escaped punishment, but whistleblowers are in equal danger.
Fewer than 20 percent of the possibly 1.3 million people slated for relocation have left their homes. One thousand more Yunyang residents arrived in Jiangsu province last month at the crest of a high tide of migrants to be dispatched to 11 provinces and cities over the coming year.
While pressure builds with the countdown to the water level rise in 2003, observers like Wei Yi and human rights watchdogs abroad fear the Communist Party will adopt ever more ruthless tactics to keep its dream on track.
The success of the Three Gorges Dam is central to the party’s promise to deliver a strong and prosperous China, without recourse to a popular mandate. The project has fascinated generations of nation-builders. In 1919, Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, first proposed damming the Yangtse.
In 1956, Chairman Mao Tse-tung sparked four decades of feasibility studies with a poem urging China to “Build a Stone Wall in the River.” The great Sichuanese survivor, Deng Xiaoping, finally took the plunge.
Yet the 1989 bill enabling the government to dam the river at Sandouping in Hubei, close to the Sichuan border, drew the first negative votes ever cast at China’s normally compliant parliament, the National People’s Congress.
In a muzzled political system and society like China, the opposition of one third of NPC delegates was unprecedented. Critics charged that official arguments of improved flood control, navigation and power generation do not hold water.
Nor do some of the many dams erected throughout China since the communists took power in 1949. After years of secrecy, details emerged in the 1990s of disasters such as the crumbling dams of Henan province in 1975, when up to 230,000 may have died.
Some experts expressed concerns about the future safety of the 400 million living downstream of the Yangtse dam. But with political prestige and global bragging rights at stake, the bill was passed to build the world’s largest dam. Work began five years later.
The dam provides a mile-long concrete lesson in the power of a one-party state, where free debate remains intolerable. No one is permitted to challenge even the most basic premise — such as whether China needs so much additional, expensive electricity, given the oversupply of cheap power elsewhere in the country.
In the first four decades of communist rule, more than 10 million Chinese evacuated their homes to make way for dam and reservoir projects. Most received small one-time payments and were left to fend for themselves. In 1989, the Ministry of Agriculture admitted that roughly 7 million remained in extreme poverty.
Before the 1980s, those who were resettled knew little about policy, sociologist Wei says. But since then, telecommunications and television have brought crucial changes. People now can watch central government leaders saying they will protect the settlers’ rights. Then they can call friends and relatives who already have moved for more information.
The response to peaceful protests against any aspect of Three Gorges Dam has been harsh. He Kechang, one of four would-be petitioners arrested in March, is reported to be ill after beatings at police hands.
“I’m scared to death,” his wife said in an interview this week.
Like relatives of the other three men, Wen Dingchun, Jiang Qingshan and Ran Chongxin, Mr. He’s wife has been denied all access to her husband since their arrest.
Back in Dafeng, Mr. She and Mr. Li are downcast at news of Mr. He’s impending sentence.
“I trusted the government would deliver what they promised,” Mr. Li says. “Everybody cried when we had to leave the land where we lived for generations. I had to sell our pigs and furniture so cheaply. We made such a sacrifice, but we were treated so badly.”
Unlike migrants who moved to areas closer to their original homes, Mr. Li admits he jumped at the chance of a berth on the pilot scheme for resettlement in Jiangsu. Most experiments of China’s reform era conjure visions of spectacular development.
Dafeng, one of Jiangsu’s poorest counties, is a far cry from Shenzhen, the booming economic zone near Hong Kong, or the model neighborhood near Shanghai that state media showcased last year as the shiny new home of the first batch of Yunyang migrants.
But although the province is one of China’s richest, even Dafeng’s per capita income is several times the $145 average in Yunyang.
“As far as I know, the majority of them are happy,” Hong Weixin, a Dafeng official responsible for resettlement, told the London Independent.
“I don’t know who promised them free schooling; it’s not included in the agreement,” Mr. Hong said of one of the migrants’ fondest hopes, inflated by gushing state media reports.
“On average, their land is the same as the local people. Maybe some got more than others, but we did our best to help them,” he said. “Peasants are peasants, after all.”
Tractor driver Shui Yuancun, on a visit to Mr. She’s home, says he realizes Three Gorges Dam will bring many benefits such as cheaper power and better water control.
“If you allow us enough to eat, peasants will never make trouble,” he says. “But now, we can’t go on living. I am over 50. I’ve got nothing to lose.”