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Displacement From the Three Gorges Region

A discreet arrival in the economic capital of China


The Three Gorges dam project has caused the displacement of many people. Among them, three identified groups have arrived in Shanghai. Originally from rural areas in the municipality of Chongqing, they have all been settled on the outskirts of the city, where they have been given a home and land. This article considers those who have arrived on Chongming Island. It highlights, through their situation, the problems that these forced migrants are having to face, and the limits of the government’s planning when many new plans for relocating people, both in urban and rural areas, are being developed in China.

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1“Contemporary population movements have, to a large extend, been a question of water”, according to Nancy Green1. In fact, the vocabulary that describes population movements by referring to ebbs and flows, tides, currents and waves can be literally applied to those persons displaced from the Three Gorges2 region. Their fate is bound up with water. Living as they did near the Yangtze or one of its tributaries, the river played a vital role, since it provided them with the water indispensable for daily life and irrigation. It also connected the villages; indeed, as the road network has developed only since the late 1990s, many villages still remain accessible only by boat or on foot along the hillside tracks. Few people now live from fishing, but some still work on the boats that ply the river, and life is organised around it.

2Residents primarily affected by the rising waters have been those who had previously benefited the most from the advantages linked to the river, particularly those who worked the most fertile lands and who supplemented their income with a small business carried out around the wharf area. Since the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, a huge reservoir has slowly been formed and the water level has been rising inexorably3. In the process, peasant farmers have been expropriated from their land step by step and with their families they have been relocated according to a plan drawn up by different administrative offices.

3The State Council laid down the guidelines of expropriation, which were subsequently passed on Chongqing municipality as well as Hubei province. The local functionaries were then charged with applying the national directives in the prefectures and townships. The administrative machinery leaves little room for initiative. Yet, the cadres who have to deal with the reality on the ground are often faced with unsolvable dilemmas between the claims of displaced persons and orders from above. They are generally the target of discontent, being accused—rightly or wrongly—of corruption, inefficiency and bad management4.

4This article presents the situation of the 7,500 migrants who arrived in three successive waves in Shanghai and for whom this city is a mythical place, an unhoped-for chance to turn the drudgery of their daily existence into an easier life. Yet while cadres sang the praises of Shanghai to the peasants who knew it only from television, very few out of the some two million displaced persons there are happy5. Even if there is a discrepancy between the dreamed-of life in Shanghai and its reality, they deem themselves to be fortunate. Some of their neighbours or relatives left for other provinces like Jiangxi, Guangdong or Shandong where the conditions on offer are far from satisfactory. Quite a few of them have returned to the Three Gorges region, unable to get used to their new environment, which is not the case for those resettled in Shanghai.

5Several factors contributed to the choice of this research project. On the one hand, that Shanghai was the city to receive these people from the countryside is interesting, for the gap between the glamorous economic capital and the displaced persons arriving from a poor area. On the other hand, the Chinese government has presented Chongming Island, offshore from Shanghai, as a model, an example of a successfully displaced population. Finally, as the three stages of migration were completed by July 2004, some evaluation of them can be made.

6For this research, we carried out a study in each of the ten villages where migrants from the Three Gorges region have been resettled. Non-directive interviews were done with some twenty families with whom we had several meetings over the course of three years. Moreover, we went into their home villages and interviewed the members of the families who stayed behind. We also met with certain cadres from Chongming who had overseen the selection and subsequent arrival of the migrants. Additionally, we made use of research completed by Chinese colleagues. As the subject matter is deemed sensitive, much statistical data is inaccessible to foreigners. Thus, we can use only what data is reported, which explains the limited amount of statistics we have been able to refer to.

7This article presents the socio-political effects of forced migration to Shanghai by considering the example of a small number of displaced persons. We begin with a description of their initial situation by looking at where they come from and how they were selected. We then examine where they have been settled and how they are adapting to their new environment.

From the mountains of the Three Gorges region to the plains of Shanghai

8After a week going down the Yangtze by boat, three successive groups of peasant farmers from the municipality of Chongqing reached Shanghai. The first wave arrived in August 2000, the second in July 2001 and the last in July 2004. As the maximum level of the dam has not yet been reached6, remaining families will be displaced at a later date, although none of them will be sent to Shanghai. For the Shanghai authorities, the city’s intake of migrants from the Three Gorges region was complete in July 2004.

9The new arrivals are from Wanzhou and Yunyang two adjoining prefectures from the municipality of Chongqing7. Although neighbours geographically, they have very different levels of economic development. These differences are to be found in the manner in which the displaced behaved after their resettlement. Since the late nineteenth century Wanzhou has been an important port on the Yangtze between Wuhan and Chongqing. This prefecture quickly developed industrial and commercial activities related to the river. It forms part of the development zones (kaifa qu), and in this capacity benefits from financial facilities8. Its total area is 3,457 square kilometres. Before displacement, Wanzhou had a population of about 1