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Date Posted: 11:51 20/11/2004

Lies, Dam Lies and Hydropower Stations

Resolving rural poverty requires more than just knocking their houses down.

ONLY THREE weeks after the protests began, the mainstream media has finally got wind of the troubles surrounding the Pubugou Hydropower Station in Sichuan, mentioned by Running Dog at the end of last month. Riots and protests lasting several days – including a strike by local students and a sit-in by old-timers at the site of the dam itself - culminated in a promise by the local county government to suspend construction until the controversial issues had been settled.

As the demonstrations erupted, an article by China Youth Daily on October 27 described the pitiful levels of compensation offered to the residents of Hanyuan County, which was to be entirely submerged by a reservoir. China Youth Daily explained that the local government and the power giant, the Guodian Corporation, had connived to reduce costs to a minimum and had not once held consultations with the local people, as required by the Environmental Impact Law passed by the State Council last year.

At the beginning of November, the local community took to the streets once more when the local people decided that the local government wasn't to be trusted. The government, after all, were responsible for the low payments in the first place, underestimating local revenues in order to be eligible for the perks awarded by Beijing to 'poor rural counties', and falsifying evidence in order to pretend that much of the land scheduled to be submerged was infertile, thus reducing the levels of compensation.
The big problem is that the communities affected are generally remote and unintegrated with the rest of China, and have had no share at all in the economic reforms that have swept through the eastern coast. Their only real acquaintance with the central government is when it approves plans to demolish their house and move them on to the slum districts of some nearby mid-level city. These people, it seems, have no particular attachment to their ways of life –consisting largely of harsh and backbreaking rural labour, and deep poverty - but they are not being given a stake in their own transformation, and the life they move to is often substantially worse than the life they left behind.

On the Nu River, which has also been a key location in the controversies about hydropower in southwestern China, the local communities are trying to get ahead just like any other, jostling about at market towns flogging cuts of fatty meat and selling on their old motorbikes in order to pay for spankier replacements. More electricity in the region ought to mean more wealth, but central to the problem is providing opportunity, and ensuring that the majority of people displaced by massive construction projects can enjoy some of the benefits.

The old folks never want to leave, of course, because the idea of bettering themselves at 70 or 80 years old already seems preposterous. Even in the implausibly rich villages of southern Jiangsu, the old people wanted to stay behind in their old barns and farmhouses even when their children were already moving into luxury three-storey villas several kilometres down the road. At the Three Gorges, the youth were, again, far more willing to smash their ties to the farms and head to the city.

For the most part, they have only the most rudimentary of education. The channels linking them to the rest of China, the routes to wealth and success in the east, just do not exist. When their farms are shattered and submerged by the latest reservoir, they have no option but to follow the routes set out by the local government - shifting them upstream or up the bank to land only half as fertile as the land they left, shifting them into the migrant-worker ghettos of shabby industrial cities where they face prejudice and cannot find a job.

Yesterday's China Youth Daily ran a report about a number of displaced farmers living in Xi'an and now undergoing computer training in the city. The photograph accompanying the brief article shows a group of bemused looking people - including an frail old woman with papery skin – trying to take notes. The difficulty – one of the biggest that China will face in the coming decades - is that rural communities in the west have by any measure fallen so far behind the coast that token efforts such as these will have very little impact at all.

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