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Problems continue a decade on for Three Gorges migrants.
Plans to move 3 million people and reroute the Yangtze River are underway.

For development, China moves millions

As China faces its biggest relocation project yet, a look at the problems which continue a decade on for the Three Gorges migrants.


CHONGQING, China — When China launches ambitious projects to conquer nature and astound the world, people always get in the way.

Sometimes it’s a few dozen people; often it’s thousands or even millions.

In the country’s headlong drive toward development, moving large numbers of people quickly and often painfully goes hand in hand with building the world’s biggest dam, the longest stretch of high-speed rail, even re-shaping whole cities.

In the best-case situations, those who get moved end up with nicer homes, indoor plumbing, access to services and cleaner living conditions. The dark side is that frequently the relocated become internal migrants mired in debt, without farmland or income.

“They’re trampling on me. But I’m tough, I can still move a little with them trampling.”
~Three Gorges migrant who now lives in Beijing

“Eventually, every forced migrant in China becomes a refugee,” said Chen Zongshun, author of an investigative book about the 1.5 million people relocated for the world’s biggest hydropower project, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

A study this spring says demolition and forced relocation are the biggest flashpoints for social unrest in China, even more than toxic pollution or labor issues. With an estimated more than 180,000 protests per year in China, that’s certainly not lost on a government that now spends more on domestic security than its military budget.

Perhaps this level of unrest shouldn’t be a surprise when one considers just how many people have been moved, and lost farms and families in the process, with little or no recourse. Thousands of them flock to Beijing every year, seeking redress for lost homes and farmland, often forced back to the provinces with nothing, or having spent a few days in jail. Even those thousands displaced for the destruction of old parts of Beijing had troubles.

‘Spike point’

In June, official media reported on a study from the Research Center for Social Contradiction, which called forced demolition and relocations “a spike point among all conflicts in Chinese society.”

This year, China is embarking on its biggest relocation yet: A project to move nearly 3 million people in central Shaanxi province in part to get people out of dangerous, crumbling mountains but also to help divert the Yangtze River north.

It’s also continuing a plan to move nearly 400,000 nomads in Ningxia to cities. Both are billed as alleviating poverty through urbanization. If history is any guide, there will be problems.

From Beijing to Xinjiang and Shanghai to Yunnan, China’s methods of moving people out of the way for demolition, construction and development are remarkably similar. They start with logical, seemingly fair plans for moving and compensation; plans that often break down by the time the details are implemented on the local level.

Probably the best-known example of this collapse is the resettlement river town dwellers moved to make way for the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, mostly during the 1990s. Here, families who had farmed and fished for generations were turned almost overnight into city dwellers, many of them given new homes in provinces thousands of miles from their hometowns.

Initially, some resettled farmers could be found along the river happy about getting newer, nicer homes mostly paid for by the government. The system broke down quickly, however, and vast sums of the money meant to re-home people whose farms and houses were flooded was embezzled by government officials. By the end of the resettlement