Peasants dig in as dam waters rise

Chinese officials along 375 miles of the Yangtze must relocate 550,000 residents by the year's end.

The sledgehammer swings into a neighboring building and another slab crashes to the ground. But in Hong Lijun's restaurant, none of the diners look up from their plates of the daily special, stewed red pepper and pig's stomach lining.

An outsider might take their expressions for boredom, or the resignation of people used to being pushed around. The truth is just the opposite: By eating a simple meal in the midst of a state-mandated demolition, Mr. Hong and his customers are mounting a quiet protest against political and technological forces closing in on the place they call home.

Up and down the 375-mile Three Gorges reservoir, from towns as yet intact to those that look as if they've been carpet-bombed, thousands of residents are digging in their heels for a dangerous showdown with the rising Yangtze River and what they say is official corruption behind China's ambitious bid to redirect its powerful waters.

Dubbed "nail households" for their refusal to be uprooted from land they've claimed for generations, these soon-to-be-homeless are hoping to force government officials to offer them a better compensation deal before the reservoir - and their homes - are flooded this spring.

"They will have to take us in handcuffs," declares an old man in the rural township of Ganqing, which will be submerged in a few months. A crowd begins to gather around him, shouting "How can we move? No one has been paid anything."

The Three Gorges reservoir started filling early this month, when the second channel of the Yangtze was dammed. Local officials all along the river are now under intense pressure to remove 550,000 residents and demolish their homes by the end of this year, to make way for the impending flood. By June 2003, the dam's first turbines are scheduled to begin generating electricity. By the opening of the 2008 Olympics, the water level will have risen 575 feet.

By then, more than a million people in the Chongqing municipality, the province carved out of Sichuan to administer the reservoir area, will have been forcibly resettled, along with 200,000 in Hubei Province, where the dam is. Town dwellers are being relocated to nearby towns, as their original resettlement plan promised. But 125,000 rural residents are being permanently resettled in distant coastal provinces, in violation of that promise.

How many will eventually be relocated as a result of the 20-year project is still a matter of some controversy. Officials estimate 1.2 million, but some experts say it will be more like 2 million.

Anticipating that not all these people would leave without a fight, the government assigned a large and visible police force to supervise the demolition and snuff out any overt protest. Residents know that if they don't leave peacefully, the police will remove them by force.

"[Protesters are] just a small minority, although we get a lot of petitions," insists Liu Fuyen, head of the Chongqing resettlement bureau.

But the level of discontent among residents of river towns tells a different story.

Most of the buildings in Fengjie are nothing more than heaps of gray rubble. Bands of scavengers wander among the brick piles, snatching up bits of wiring and wood. Many of the town's former inhabitants linger in the wrecks of their houses, far below cliffs on which sit blocks of new housing painted in breezy pastel colors.

"Everyone thinks they've been cheated," Hong says, "because the new housing costs two or three times the cost of the old one."

Hong, his family, and 300 fellow villagers were relocated a year ago, to a newly built migrants' village in Fujian Province. But, he says, there was no work to be found because they couldn't speak the local dialect. Hong decided to return to Fengjie and reopen his roadside restaurant until the flood comes.

But it has not been an easy choice. A plague of migrating rats has moved up the hills as the gorges begin to flood. The government has scattered 120 tons of poisoned rice on the ground in an effort to exterminate the rodents.

"I don't mean mice: They are about this big," Hong says, his hands eighteen inches apart. "Every night I see them. They get into the bedding tearing up the quilts and stealing all the food they can find."

Perhaps a more devastating threat to river-dwellers is toxic waste. The land soon to be submerged contains 178 waste dumps, 40,000 grave sites, and a total of 3 million tons of refuse. Chinese environment officials warn that this waste threatens to turn Three Gorges reservoir into a cesspit.

Not that the Yangtze is pristine now: Factories and cities spew so much filth into the river that its water has long been undrinkable. According to a 1993 survey, industrial and mining enterprises release more than 1 billion tons of wastewater into it annually; the river bed is a toxic sludge of mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. Although the government recently set aside $4.8 billion to clean up the river, little seems to be happening.

More recently, erosion has emerged as a major hurdle. The steep hillsides along the river are prone to dangerous landslides, and uncertainties about their stability as the reservoir fills is raising fresh fears about the safety of new buildings built on them.

To address concerns that erosion will fill the reservoir with sediment, the government banned cultivation on slopes steeper than 25 degrees and ordered that existing fields be planted with trees. But the geological consequences of the dam could be much greater: It could cause subterranean structures to shift and the land above them to be unlivable.

The Chinese government has taken note. In July, it announced the allocation of $361 million to prevent what it called "geological" disasters. Meanwhile, those who bought new homes above Fengjie are up in arms because authorities in Chongqing are refusing to issue them land-ownership certificates. Without them, they are ineligible for mortgages, and cannot resell their property.

"Surveyors came and found that it has been built on ground that is geologically unstable," Hong says. "A lot of people think corrupt officials are to blame."

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