Forced Resettlement, Suppression of
Dissent and Labor Rights Concerns

February 1995, Vol.7 No.2



In April 1992, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) formally approved the “Resolution on the Construction of the Yangtze River Three Gorges Project,” marking the conclusion of decades of controversy within the Chinese leadership in favor of supporters of the world’s biggest-ever river dam project. Despite strenuous government attempts to muzzle the debate, almost one-third of the normally compliant NPC delegates, in an unprecedented display of legislative dissent, either abstained or cast opposition votes. The following year, a pilot project for the resettlement of an estimated 1.1 to 1.6 million inhabitants of the proposed 600-kilometer-long reservoir area drew to a close and, in early 1994, the full resettlement program began in earnest. By mid-year, excavation and preparation of the dam’s foundations were underway at Sandouping, the chosen dam site just downstream of the world-famous Three Gorges scenic area; in December, Premier Li Peng formally declared the project open. The Chinese government has offered overseas manufacturers US$3 billion worth of machinery and equipment contracts and will reportedly seek an additional US$5 billion or so in overseas funding for the project. International tendering has already begun for a preliminary range of dam-related construction contracts. A showcase for China’s “opening and reform” policy, the dam is a model for how lack of transparency and debate, authoritarian decision-making and underlying unfair labor conditions can taint an ambitious enterprise.

Publicly, the authorities have assured China’s citizens and the rest of the world that the Three Gorges dam will be environmentally safe and economically viable, and that it will even contribute toward social stability and prosperity among the enormous number of people who are to be uprooted. Privately, a very different outcome is now being anticipated by the government. As two “internal-use-only” documents recently prepared by China’s public security authorities and obtained by Human Rights Watch/Asia make clear, intensive contingency plans are now being drawn up by the police to deal with the widespread social turmoil ranging from large-scale peaceful protest actions to mass pitched battles with the authorities that is expected to ensue from the Three Gorges project as a whole and from the population transfer program in particular. According to one of the reports, “Already, in January 1993, one armed fight involving over 300 persons occurred in the vicinity of the dam.” (See Appendices I and II for full texts of the documents.)

Throughout the protracted debate over the Three Gorges dam, numerous objections and challenges to the project have been mounted by environmentalists, social scientists, geologists, sedimentation experts, hydraulic power engineers, military planners and other Chinese specialists concerned about the dam’s likely economic, social, political and national security consequences. These have received short shrift from top government leaders, in particular Premier Li Peng, who seem intent on denying a public forum to opponents of the monumental project and on forcing it through both as a means of symbolizing China’s fast-emerging “superpower” status and as a vehicle for personal glorification. Since 1956, two generations of Three Gorges dam opponents from Li Rui, formerly Mao Zedong’s personal secretary and a vice-minister of water resources, to Dai Qing, a former Guangming Daily journalist who in February 1989 published an anthology of articles opposing the dam have been discriminated against, dismissed from office, publicly humiliated, branded as “rightists” and sometimes sent to prison for their dissenting views. Yet it is often those critical voices which are most urgently needed during the kind of rapid modernization on which China has embarked.

Internationally, in line with an evolving scientific and public-opinion consensus against the construction of any more river-dam “megaprojects” such as Egypt’s Aswan Dam and the Narmada project in India, foreign governments and international lending agencies began, after 1989, to reverse their earlier stance of qualified support for the project. The dramatic expansion of the Chinese economy during the past two years, however, has again altered the general picture: a headlong rush by Western businesses to participate in China’s emerging “socialist market economy” has brought Western governments under increasing political pressure to signal backing for the Three Gorges dam. In September 1994, for example, the White House solicited U.S. government interagency submissions in what some believed could be the prelude to a full-scale resumption of U.S.-China commercial cooperation on the dam-building project.

One crucial aspect of the Three Gorges dam project which until now has received little public attention is that of the project’s potential for causing major human rights violations in the proposed reservoir region. The present report focuses upon two main issues of concern: first, the Chinese government’s continuing suppression of dissenting viewpoints on the Three Gorges dam including a decades-long tight restriction on public information and debate, extending most recently to the actual arrests of political activists opposed to the dam’s construction; and second, the human rights issues that surround the forced resettlement of more than one million current and future inhabitants of the Three Gorges reservoir area and the rights of workers on the dam site.

China’s longstanding restrictions on public access to information, debate and decision-making about large dam-construction projects have had fatal consequences in the past. An example was the catastrophic collapse in August 1975 of two large water-conservancy projects in Henan Province, the Banqiao dam and the Shimantan dam. Hitherto almost entirely unreported beyond the confines of China’s top party leadership and elite hydrological circles, this event represented by far the largest known dam disaster in human history. In the resulting floods, famine and health epidemics, fatalities amounted to anywhere between 86,000 (the government’s internally-released figure) and 230,000 (an estimate produced by eight senior Chinese critics of the Three Gorges project). As Appendix III of this report reveals, the Banqiao and Shimantan dam collapses were to a large extent man-made disasters, resulting from flawed water-control policies. Overall lack of government transparency in the dam-building process has contributed to a current situation whereby, according to Dai Qing, “More than one third of China’s dams should be considered unsafe.” The most recent dam collapse, that at Gonghe in Qinghai Province, occurred in August 1993 with the loss of more than 300 lives.

The two provinces most affected by the Three Gorges dam, Sichuan and Hubei, both contain numerous political and religious prisoners held in China’s laogai system of penal labor camps. Since these camps account for a high proportion of the country’s industrial output in the construction and building-materials sectors (see Labor Rights section and Appendix IV below), prospective foreign investors in the Three Gorges project should take systematic precautions against any inadvertent involvement with China’s highly abusive laogai network.

In this report, Human Rights Watch/Asia calls on the Chinese government to provide full access to information about the proposed resettlement program to those affected and permit the latter to freely express their opinions through a process of consultation with authorities at the provincial and central level. The government should establish a mechanism for investigating allegations of abuse and allow unhampered access of international human rights and humanitarian organizations to the affected areas, including to prisons, to verify that complaints of abuses are being adequately addressed and that no one is detained for speaking out against any aspect of government policy concerned with the dam. The government should also provide full information about the legal status and whereabouts of those already known to have been arrested in connection with protests against the dam, and should immediately release anyone detained merely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association.

Human Rights Watch/Asia also calls on foreign governments to insist on human rights impact assessment studies of the project before providing any financing, goods or services to facilitate the dam’s construction. Private foreign investors should insist on firm and verifiable guarantees from the Chinese government that human rights will be respected before committing themselves to the project.


To the Chinese government:
The Chinese government should provide full access to information about the proposed settlement program to those affected and permit the latter to freely express their views on the project. It should also allow unrestricted debate more generally on the merits of the project.

The Chinese government should provide full information about the legal status and whereabouts of the 179 members of the Democratic Youth Party reportedly detained in connection with their protests against the Three Gorges project in May 1992 in Kai County, Sichuan. Any persons still detained on account of such activities should be freed forthwith, and the government should refrain from any further arbitrary denials of the right to peaceful assembly and free expression in the Three Gorges area and cease punishing or persecuting those opposed to the dam’s construction.

The Chinese government should establish an independent commission of experts charged with the task of monitoring and supervising the progress of the Three Gorges population-transfer program. The commission should reflect the main social constituencies and principal areas of specialist knowledge involved in the resettlement project, and should be endowed with sufficient powers including the rights to investigate suspected abuses by government officials, publish its findings independently and submit complaints to government or judicial authorities to enable it to safeguard the interests of those being resettled.

The Chinese government should allow unrestricted access by human rights and humanitarian organizations to the dam site, including to prisons in the area, so that allegations of abuse and the Chinese government’s steps to redress them can be verified.

The Chinese government should instruct the Sichuan and Hubei provincial governments to establish an institutional framework for genuine consultations between the authorities and members of the resettlement population, with a view to minimizing unfair or arbitrary treatment and ensuring transparency and consistency in the implementation of resettlement criteria and standards of compensation.

The Chinese government should seek the advice and involvement of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to reduce the likelihood of labor rights abuses, including repression of independent labor organizers and mistreatment of migrant workers. The ILO should send a team to China to make recommendations for specific protections of internationally recognized labor rights, including freedom of association. Its findings should also be presented to the ILO annual conference next June (1996) for consideration by governments involved directly or indirectly subsidizing the project.

To Foreign Governments:
Governments considering providing equipment, financing, commercial licensing, insurance or other goods and services for the Three Gorges project, either directly to the Chinese government or to corporations registered in their countries, should insist on independent studies of the likely human rights impact of the project before any agreements are concluded. Those studies should be undertaken by an expert team, including human rights professionals, with no ties whatsoever to the Chinese or any other government and with unrestricted access to the region. They should include investigation of access to information about the project and efforts to suppress or control it; plans for or implementation of resettlement, including ability to dissent and obtain redress for losses; and involvement of the security forces in resettlement and examination of any coercion used. No investment should take place until such studies have been completed and their findings made public.

Government-supported financing, commercial licensing, insurance or other goods and services for the Three Gorges should also be made contingent on the provision by the Chinese government of full information as to the legal status and whereabouts of the 179 people reportedly detained in connection with their protests against the project in May 1992 in Kai Country, Sichuan.

To private foreign investors:
Private investors should seek assurances from the Chinese government that the freedoms of expression and association of those involved in the resettlement process or debating the Three Gorges project are respected; and that the right to legal redress of those involved in the resettlement process to challenge decisions as well as protect other rights are respected.

Private investors should also seek assurances from the Chinese government that harsh repressive measures including judicial penalties such as the death penalty imposed on “state security” grounds or the excessive use of force will not be used in the course of the massive relocation program. They should also make it clear to Chinese authorities that gross human rights abuses committed while carrying out forced relocations would reflect badly on private foreign investors and may limit or preclude their ability to invest in Three Gorges.

To private corporate activity:
Foreign corporations, especially construction companies, should include in their contracts explicit prohibitions on the use of materials and equipment produced by Chinese prisoners. Their contracts should specify penalties they will impose (such as surcharges or cancellation of contracts) if they discover that they are inadvertently using building materials made by prisoners in the Sichuan and Hubei laogai. Governments underwriting investments in Three Gorges should require such provisions in all contracts.



I . Summary
II. Muzzling the Critics
III. Case of the “Democratic Youth Party”
IV. Population Relocation Program
V. Labor Rights
VI. Conclusions
VII. Recommendations
Appendix I
Appendix II
Appendix III
Appendix IV

Human Rights Watch      February 1995      Vol.7 No.2

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