Fog on the Nu River

Last year, China enshrined in law the public's right to participate in decision-making on large construction projects. Liu Jianqiang reports on the progress of these measures at a controversial dam in the country’s southwest.

The proposed construction of a dam and hydroelectric plant on southwest China’s Nu River has sparked one of the country’s most heated environmental debates. But the matter has also become shrouded in a cloud of obfuscation and untruth; it is the least transparent of all China’s large-scale projects.

The controversy at the Nu River may have an impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people, on a large number of institutions – and also on China’s national and wider societal interests. It seems to reflect the difficulties and hopes of modern China’s development. I became concerned about the Nu River, and on New Year’s Day, 2006, I visited the region, hoping to find the underlying truth. I brought with me photographs of two people who were taken by officials to a meeting in Beijing about the proposed dam. Described as “representatives” of the half million people in the area, they supported the dam. “We want the power plant to be built; we want it to improve our lives,” they had said.

Before this statement, only the hydroelectric company, government officials and a few academics had spoken on behalf of the locals. Some were so sympathetic they shed tears – or at least alleged they did. A common claim was: “When I saw how poor the people of the Nu River are, I cried.” On the locals’ behalf, they concluded that the people must be saved from their misery – and the dam must be built.

However, it was never explained how they were authorised to represent the local people. Moreover, the dam’s supporters never mentioned that they themselves would benefit most from the dam. On the contrary, they portrayed themselves as responsible for relieving the locals’ poverty and spurring the area’s development. Of course, we must welcome the selfless altruism of corporate social responsibility; but we also have the right to ask that the results of this “social responsibility” are made public.

But they have not been. And judging by reports that continue to emerge about the plight of those relocated by other large dam projects, it may be awkward for them to do so, since their class solidarity could be called into question. If the rights of local people are to be protected, they must stand up and speak for themselves; a robust and democratic decision-making process is essential.

In the end, the local government allowed these two local people to be heard in Beijing. It was a step forward. The spokespeople were both in favour of the dam, but at least they represented the people from the region. However, I still had some doubts: all the other attendees at the meeting were named, except these two representatives. Not even their village or their county was publicised. They were known merely as “representatives of Nu River residents.” Why the mystery?

Fortunately, I was able to obtain photographs of them at the meeting. Perhaps I would be able to find them among the 500,000 people who live around the Nu River, I thought. I wanted to ask them if they really believed what they had said. And if so, could they really speak for half a million others?

I followed the Nu River valley, searching for them village by village, but I could not find them. I did, however, find that of 30 locals I interviewed across several counties, 80% had no idea they were to be rescued by a hydroelectric company. The few that did know were all administrative workers, public servants or village cadres. And they felt no gratitude towards the hydroelectric company or the local government. One female public servant I spoke to said that the dam would not improve things, and that many would not be adequately resettled. It proved the falsity of claims about unanimous local support. The local government may want the dam, but the locals themselves do not. In fact, the government officials want the extra income. “They hope the dam will increase government income and earn them promotions,” said the public servant.

A hydroelectric company executive at the consultation meeting in Beijing claimed that “democratic decision-making principles will be implemented from start to finish.”

But the locals had a different story to tell. A village cadre told me that in October 2004, the locals held a meeting to discuss compensation payments for relocation. The township head turned up and accused the villagers of holding an illegal meeting, threatened objectors with jail and demanded that they should not obstruct the project or speak to the media.

The village cadre went on to say that people were most worried that land compensation would be inadequate and their children would be left without a living; without their land they have no way to survive. Measurements on which to base these compensation payments had been taken recently, but the ridges between fields and rocky areas were not included. The locals were angry, but were scared they would be jailed if they complained.

This brings to mind the hydroelectric company’s comments about democratic decision-making. But let’s move on, and keep looking for those two nameless representatives. Maybe they got to exercise their democratic rights, after all.

At last, someone recognised the faces in the photograph: I had finally found them. One was a village party secretary named Ou, who told me that the locals were poor, earning only a few hundred yuan every year, and that they supported the dam. But I spoke to several households in the village, and none agreed with him. I also noticed he was clutching a new Nokia mobile phone worth 3,600 yuan (around US$465) – the combined annual income of four local residents.

I asked him what the locals would do after they lost their land. He waved his hand and said “tourism.”

When I suggested that the dam would destroy exactly what tourists come to see, and that the manager of one important local tourism company had described the dam as a severe blow to the industry, he explained that the 12 dams themselves would be a tourist attraction.

Later, I found the other “representative”, a village cadre named Ji. She had something different to say from what she had expressed at the meeting. “The dam cannot be allowed to hurt the interests of the locals,” said Ji. “It’s going to flood our fields, and the state needs to provide appropriate compensation. I wanted to say this at the meeting, but there wasn’t enough time. I was just about to speak and the chairman cut me off.”

Her friend – an ethnic Lisu – was sitting alongside us. “I’ve just never seen how it’s meant to make us rich,” he said. “The money from the dam goes to the country, to the boss. Where do we get rich? I’ve never made sense of it. There was a township meeting about relocation, and I asked there. The township leaders couldn’t answer. Even a deputy-secretary admitted it was a problem. Seems they don’t know either.”

I asked the “representative” what she thought.  “He’s right,” she said, laughing.

I did not find all the answers on this trip; I am still far from the truth about the Nu River. But at least I now know how thick the fog of untruth is.


Liu Jianqiang is a Beijing-based investigative journalist.