Translated by Paul Frank
Since October, several popular riots in China have caught the world’s attention. These incidents indicate that China has entered a period of serious social conflict.
The Hanyuan Incident: The people are deprived of their right to make a living while the government “drains the pond to catch the fish”
The protest staged by people living in the Hanyuan Reservoir area in Sichuan Province deserves the widest attention. Here is the background. First, the Hanyuan protest was staged to protect the livelihoods of 150,000 people and was one of a large number of similar popular protests that have recently been organized all over China in response to the Chinese government’s plunder of the nation’s natural resources. As the popular saying goes, the government is “draining the pond to catch the fish.” In accordance with China’s new energy strategy, at least 50 million people will be forced to relocate in the future. Second, the Chinese government has to strike a balance between an energy crisis that is becoming more severe with each passing day and riots at the bottom rung of society. The choice is between developing energy resources to sustain economic development and protecting the basic livelihood of tens of millions of people at the bottom rung of society. Put in plain language, by sacrificing a minority’s right to make a living, the Communist regime can buy itself a few more years or even decades in power. But if the speed of economic development is reduced, the government will inevitably have to cope with all sorts of socio-economic problems.
Many analysts attribute the Hanyuan riots to the fact that the compensation the residents were offered for moving was unreasonably small. But this explanation only scratches the surface. The deeper problem is that forced relocations destroy the farmers’ livelihood. Before they were relocated, these farmers had a few thousand mu of fertile land that enabled them to make a decent living. After they were relocated, they were given poor hillside land on which they could only plant corn and were unable to eke out an existence. Even if corrupt officials don’t pocket a penny of the so-called compensation, it is a one-time payment that fails to provide for each farmer’s family need to keep working the land to make a living. The overall urban and rural unemployment rate in China now stands at approximately 30%. By ruthlessly driving the farmers of Hanyuan from their land, the government has increased the army of the jobless by more than 100,000, a trifling number.
The government fails to recognize the seriousness of this situation. Several months ago, a number of social scientists who had conducted an on-the-spot investigation in Hanyuan, warned that Hanyuan risked following the same old disastrous road as the Manwan hydroelectric power station in Yunnan Province. They concluded that “a hydroelectric power engineering project designed to alleviate poverty and promote economic development has ended up impoverishing farmers who were previously relatively well-off.” Why is it that while Hu Jintao chants lofty slogans about “governing for the people’s benefit,” the Chinese government repeatedly permits large-scale forcible relocations of ordinary citizens in a patent violation of their civil rights?
The logic of authoritarian government is that the people’s right to a livelihood must be subordinated to the interests of the state
The destitution of farmers in the Manwan and Hanyuan reservoir areas is typical of the mad rush to build dams in Western China. In the Yangtze and Yellow River areas of southwestern China, 10 huge hydroelectric power stations, each with an installed capacity of 3000 megawatts, are going to be built in the near future. If you add the Ertan Hydroelectric Plant, which has already been built, these huge power plants will have a total installed capacity of five Three Gorges hydroelectric power stations. This golden age of hydroelectric power is working havoc upon the natural environment and society alike. The fact is that these hydroelectric engineering projects cannot improve the material well-being of society. To further the interests of a small number of officials and power companies, a great many ordinary people are being sacrificed and robbed of their livelihood. This short-sighted policy will deprive future generations of their means of support.
According to incomplete World Bank statistics, over the past 50 years, major hydroelectric engineering projects in China have displaced 16 million people, 10 million of whom are now impoverished. Whenever the government relocates local residents, it flouts human rights and puts profits before people. When the government forcibly relocates farmers from their ancestral homes, it subordinates their right to make a decent living to the requirement for electric power, flood control, irrigation, transportation and other “interests of the state.” Whole villages have been relocated to poor and barren areas where the villagers have no means of making a decent living. In 1956, when the Sanmenxi Reservoir on the Yellow River was under construction, the government forced 300,000 farmers to leave their home villages. In the twenty years that followed, the farmers tried to return home under the leadership of four peasant leaders. Each time, the local government used armed force to expel them. The Chinese people have never been told the story, written in blood and tears, of these 300,000 farmers who took a stand for their rights.
During the reform period, the construction of hydroelectric power plants has been accompanied by widespread malpractice and corruption. The Manwan hydroelectric power station, built in Yunnan Province in the 1980s, was one example of many. Before it began building the reservoir, the provincial government did not bother to seek the local residents’ opinion. It simply assumed the right to sign an agreement with the hydroelectric power company and give up fertile land along a river. When construction on the Manwan dam was begun in the mid-1980s, the local government’s slogan was “the day the Manwan power plant begins to generate electricity, the common people will become prosperous.” This promise was diametrically opposed to what actually happened. When the dam was built, more than 10,000 locals were forced to leave their homes and found themselves barely able to survive. Many men were forced to emigrate in search of temporary jobs. Many more women and children had to pick through garbage to make a miserable living. According to one study, before the Manwan reservoir area was flooded, local residents had an average income 11.2% above the Yunnan provincial average. After the area was flooded, the dislocated population had an average income only 46% of the provincial average. Before the area was flooded, residents paid an electricity rate of 0.16 yuan per kilowatt-hour. After the Manwan power plant went into operation, the dislocated population had to pay a staggering 2 yuan per kilowatt-hour.
Draining the pond to catch the fish
Despite these problems, the Chinese government cannot stop building dams and hydroelectric power stations. On November 9, after the Hanyuan incident, Minister of Water Resources Wang Shucheng declared in a speech to a group of scientists and engineers that in theory China has waterpower resources of 689 gigawatts, of which 395 gigawatts will be developed as installed capacity. It is argued that to guarantee the water supply to the cities, improve flood control, produce more hydroelectric power and meet the country’s huge energy needs, China still needs to build many more dams. This argument has alarmed the international community, because all developed countries are currently pulling down their big dams to restore the environment. One international environmental organization after another has warned about the environmental disaster that will result from China’s drive to build huge dams. Does Wang Shucheng really plan to go against the international tide of environmental protection? That’s not all. According to UN data, China currently has an installed hydroelectric generating capacity of 100 gigawatts, and has forcibly relocated 16 million people, of whom at least 10 million have been plunged into poverty as a result. Given that the government plans to build hydroelectric power plants with an installed capacity of another 295 megawatts, three times as many people will be forced to leave their home villages. This is bound to produce even more social unrest.
Behind Wang Shucheng’s statement is the awkward fact that China faces a severe energy crisis. Because hydroelectric power is the cornerstone of the government’s energy strategy, it is forced to “drain the pond to catch the fish.”
I have argued in numerous articles that before the 1990s, China relied mainly on its own natural resources for its economic development. But since then, economic growth has been accompanied by an ever growing reliance on imported natural resources. The consiglieri to the Chinese government know that there is a strategic window of opportunity of approximately six years during which natural-resource-based economic development can be maintained. Since the year before last, power shortages have been reported all over China. In many economically developed parts of the country, electricity has been rationed and factories have consequently been forced to follow a “three days on, four days off” production schedule. Since this energy crisis began, China has been searching for alternative sources of energy. One of the goals of the Chinese government’s new energy strategy is to achieve a structural diversification of energy sources during the first two decades of the 21st century. This will require vigorously developing hydroelectric and nuclear power as well as renewable sources of energy such as solar energy, bioenergy and wind energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and achieve sustainable development. Nuclear power poses three big challenges: high levels of investment, technology and the environment. The government aims to increase China’s nuclear energy generation capacity to 40 gigawatts by 2020, or 4% of the country’s total electric power generation capacity. Because the production of solar energy, bioenergy and wind energy depends on favorable climatic and geographic conditions, it will only be pursued on a prototype basis. Hydroelectric power will remain the principal source of alternative energy. The Chinese government is adamant that China is one of the world’s greatest producers of hydroelectric power. Yet China’s exploitation rate stands at only 15%, far below international standards, and behind developing countries such as India, Brazil and Vietnam. The development potential is huge.
Now that building more and more hydroelectric dams and power plants has become state policy, all populations living in reservoir areas about to be flooded are being forcibly relocated. China Business News recently published an article describing how local residents were plunged into poverty after they were forced to leave their homes to make way for the Hanyuan dam (Zhongguo Jingyingbao, August 21, 2004). But such appeals to public opinion have never stirred the government’s conscience and sense of political responsibility. According to the logic of the Chinese Communist regime, individual interests must be subordinated to the interests of the state. Accordingly, next to the great interest of the state, the right to life and livelihood of people at the bottom rung of society is not even worth mentioning. For example, to build yet another dam, the Hutiao (“Tiger Leaping”) Gorge on the Yangtze, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, is also slated to be flooded. Hutiao Gorge has a drop of 3000 meters and is said to be the world’s deepest canyon. Its natural beauty and cultural significance make it one of China’s most important tourist attractions. If even a natural treasure and World Natural Heritage Site such as Hutiao Gorge is flooded, what hope is there for a humble place like Hanyuan?
China is being plundered and ruined by a privileged elite
Economic development is the only means the Chinese communist dictatorship has left to tout its legitimacy. For more than two decades, China has pursued an unwise path of rapid economic growth founded on high energy consumption. To turn Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and a few other cities into showcases of modernization, the government has sacrificed the countryside and countless middle-sized cities and towns. According to official statistics, in the mid-1990s environmental degradation cost China more than 8% of its GDP, which was exactly the nation’s GDP growth rate at the time. China is exhausting the world’s limited natural resources, failing to address its mass unemployment, and wrecking the environment not only for future Chinese generations but also for its neighbors. Japan and South Korea have long suffered from Chinese sandstorms, Hong Kong’s air is polluted by mainland industry, and the Mekong’s downstream countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) complain that they are the victims of China’s water resources problems.
China can fairly be said to be in a state of crisis. The so-called economic reforms have enriched a small minority and impoverished a far greater number of people. China’s rapid economic development is sustained by the wholesale despoliation of its environment. The destruction of China’s environment and the impoverishment of millions of Chinese people is largely ignored by the international business community. The popular uprisings that have become more and more frequent in recent years amply demonstrate that behind the flourishing coastal cities that showcase China’s modernization there lies hidden another China, a China wrung dry and abandoned by privileged bigwigs who profit from the privatization of the economy: the real China in which most Chinese people struggle to make a living. The flames of protest are already rising from all directions. They may one day burn Chinese civilization to ashes.
To China’s ruling class, the survival of Chinese civilization is a matter of little consequence. A few days ago, China’s central bank announced new regulations removing foreign exchange controls. The key provision allows people leaving China to take an unlimited amount of funds out of the country. [To Translator: The announcement of China’s central bank for travelers is another policy, whereas what is mentioned in the article refers to a different policy effective from 12/1/04.] This effectively legalizes capital flight out of China. Henceforth, corrupt officials will be able to plunder China even more brazenly. They need not fear being held accountable for afflicting China with all kinds of ills.