China’s developmental resettlements


The human costs of China’s Three Gorges dam project are reasonably well known. Since construction began in 1994 between 1.3 million and two million people have been involuntarily resettled to higher ground and to other provinces. The project has created massive environmental hazards for China (link), and has also created a gigantic human cost among the families and communities who were forcibly relocated.

Less well known are earlier waves of “hydraulic refugees” along the Yellow River beginning with construction of the Sanmenxia Dam in 1954 (completed in 1960). And subsequent water control projects through the next several decades have created yet other large-scale displacements along the Yellow River across north-central China. The movements of peoples created by these major projects of post-Revolution-era civil and social engineering have continued to reverberate until the present.


image: Yellow River topography
In the Sanmenxia Dam case the total number of forced migrants is probably lower than the Three Gorges Dam project, though reliable statistics are not readily available. Some estimates of displaced persons created by the Sanmenxia Dam cite 300,000 migrants. But the longterm effects on individuals, families, and communities have been perhaps even more severe. The project was designed without strong geological or hydrological expertise, and it has failed fundamentally to achieve the intended goals of the project. (Journalist Xie Chaoping was arrested in 2010 for writing a sober appraisal of the failures of Sanmenxia in The Great Relocation; link.)
French scholar Florence Padovani has studied the topic of involuntary relocation in China in detail. Her contribution to Forced Migration and Global Processes: A View from Forced Migration Studies provides quite a bit of factual background on the important hydraulic relocations. Here is Padovani’s definition of forced migration:

Forced migration, as it is understood here, involves populations which are uprooted by development programs. These individuals are internally displaced; even when they move thousands of kilometers away from their birthplace, they remain inside national borders. (92)

And here is her summary description of the relocation of population for the SMD project:

The way resettlement was implemented in the SMD case is typical of the way the government at that time considered people to be displaced. The authorities, from top to bottom, adopted the same line of action in a unified rhetoric. As for the resettlers, they did manage to raise their voices through very traditional ways, such as petitioning the central government …, but also through street demonstrations and even physical fights. …  We can summarize resettlement policy during the revolutionary period by the following points: First, the vast majority of displaced people were rural dwellers, mainly farmers. Second, they were not involved in preliminary assessment projects and were informed of the government’s plan at the last moment. Host communities were not involved in resettlement plans either, so some serious conflicts erupted when newcomers settled on their land. And third, displaced people were not well compensated and their relocation was not well planned, leading to their impoverishment. (97)

Padovani’s ethnographic study of Three Gorges Dam emigrants in the Shanghai region sheds much light on the human consequences of forced migration in China (link). This research provides a report of interviews with a few dozen migrants in the Shanghai region.The great majority of displaced people are farmers. So their life prospects following a move are bleak. They need access to land, secure housing, and access to unskilled employment. And none of these  are in ready supply in most destinations. More intangibly, they need access to kinship networks and mutual aid societies of the kind that were available in their home communities. But forced migration has thoroughly shattered those sources of mutual aid. So the lives of these million-plus migrants have not been made more hospitable as a result of the project. 

The disintegration of the social network due to forced migration means that the ‘domestic order” (local and personal ties), “civic order” (equality and solidarity), and “market order” (economic performance) have to be rebuilt. (107)

image: The Chinese Dust Bowl, The Walrus (link)

Yellow River communities have experienced another wave of resettlement in the past thirty years, this time along the upper reaches of the river in Gansu and Inner Mongolia, in response to the combined pressures of development and desertification. Irrigated farming communities have been uprooted multiple times as local authorities have sought to make use of scarce land and water resources. (Benoit Aquin’s photo essay on this region in The Walrus is a great exposure of these dustbowl conditions.)

Reading the story of these massive dam projects and their state-sponsored programs of involuntary resettlement illustrates some of the perverse processes of development that James Scott describes in Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott doesn’t consider modern Chinese examples, but he finds a raft of critical problems of environmental impact, social disruption, and human suffering associated with major water projects in other countries. His summary thoughts seem to apply to China’s development experience as well:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements. The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level…. The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs. The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)

(Here is an earlier post on Scott’s critique of state-driven modernization projects; link.)

The Sanmenxia Dam is an unmistakeable failure; siltification and massive pollution have turned out to be irresolvable problems along the length of the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. Experts are now calling for the removal of the dam altogether. There are very strong indications that the TGD is likewise an environmental and social disaster, though this is still not completely resolved. And for the several million people who were forcibly relocated, the Three Gorges Dam has often turned out to be a catastrophic turning point in their personal lives.

%d bloggers like this: