China’s Sorrow, China’s Embarrassment

Asia Times has a two part report (via Danwei) by Peter Lee on writer Xie Chaoping, his recent detention, and the subject of his book, “The Great Relocation”: the displacement and mistreatment of people from the Sanmen Xia reservoir area. It describes the long-running battle fought by the Weinan local government to conceal its mishandling of the issue, not least from the central government in Beijing.

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 ….

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.

Led by activists and patriots, the peasants inhabiting the future reservoir site voluntarily decamped to new residence areas arranged by the government …. 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.

Heavy siltation in the reservoir, meanwhile, dictated that its ultimate size be far smaller than originally intended. The land spared as a result became the subject of a long struggle between returning former residents and the local government, which had allowed its settlement by state enterprise and PLA-run farms.

On his blog, Lee compares the saga with the outlaws’ struggles in Water Margin. Many episodes in this tale could almost be chapters from the book: the displaced people’s return, the campaign of guerilla farming by which they sought to reclaim their old lands, the heroic leadership of Liu Hairong, and his eventual alliance with the officially-backed settlers. One parallel is the struggle against local corruption perpetrated behind the back of an at least relatively benign central government; Lee notes that:

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”.

This petitioning eventually led to a formal settlement in 1984, during Zhao Ziyang’s premiereship. However, the Weinan government treated the terms of the settlement with contempt, and still does so, withholding allocated lands and diverting allotted funds. In Xie Chaoping’s own words, translated at EastSouthWestNorth (entry number 13):

After I was released, many people asked me why I wrote The Great Relocation. The police officers in charge of my case had also asked this same question repeatedly. My response was that the Weinan migrants were too poor and pitiful whereas certain Weinan officials were too greedy, corrupt and abominable.

The Great Relocation touches on two key problems about the Sanmen Gorge migrants: land and money. The land and money that the central government allocated to the migrants were not distributed to them. Instead less and less money was reaching them each year. Since this affected the image of the local government, certain nerves were ticked off ….

On the morning of September 17, the Procuratorate came for me again. I thought I had to sign on the arrest order. I even prepared a note which I was going to write on the arrest order; “There will come a day when history will sanction the person who signed this arrest order. The corrupt officials and their lackeys who use the judiciary to initiate this case will be nailed to the pole of shame in history.”

See also: coverage of Xie’s detention and release on China Digital Times.

This post is part of Blog Action Day 2010, whose theme this year is water.


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