The construction of the Three Gorges Dam was a gigantic feat of both structural and social engineering. In order to make way for its reservoir, 1.24 million rural residents had to be relocated.
Unfortunately, in the museum that’s dedicated to the dam, little explanation is given to how policymakers handled the logistics of this immense operation; instead emphasis is placed upon how willing the displaced were to leave their homes for the greater good of China.
In the latest Five-Year Plan, the Chinese government has set a target for an even more ambitious relocation drive, seeking to move 10 million people out of impoverished areas by 2020 – a five-year timeframe that’s far more compressed than the 17 years the Three Gorges exodus took to complete. And some question whether the displaced villagers will be willing to go.
According to the World Bank, China has lifted 800 million people out of poverty since 1978. It is one of the nation’s proudest achievements. But as of last year there were still 70 million people living below the poverty line (which China classes as subsisting on under Rmb2,300 per year, roughly $1 a day).
According to the People’s Daily, at least 3.1 million of these live in regions with “harsh natural conditions” and a further 3.4 million live in “areas with weak infrastructure”. Relocation to developed, more hospitable areas seems like a natural solution to these problems, and for the government it may have the added value of boosting the economy’s overall health.
In 2014, the State Council laid out the following rationale in a policy blueprint titled National New-type Urbanisation Plan (2014-2020): “Domestic demand is the fundamental impetus for China’s development, and the greatest potential for expanding domestic demand lies in urbanisation.”
To this end, the plan set the target of increasing the proportion of urban residents to 60%. However, a problem policymakers encounter with urbanisation is that a large number of current city residents (i.e. migrant labourers) do not have urban residency permits (hukou), and thus are denied access to many local services, such as schools and medical care.
The Chinese cabinet’s “new-type urbanisation” appears to resign itself to accepting this disparity: it seeks to increase urbanisation to 60%, but only hopes to increase the proportion of nationals with an urban hukou to 45% – albeit that’s a big rise: equivalent to the conversion of 100 million rural hukou into the city variety.
The recently announced plan to relocate 10 million impoverished citizens is effectively a subset of the 2014 urbanisation blueprint.
But whilst the government has considered the economic upside to this migration, it might find a greater obstacle in the human element.
A Xinhua reporter, who spent over a month visiting families due to be relocated, observed that in Guizhou province alone, there are over 7,600 isolated villages that will be “wiped off” the map when the plan is enacted. “If we all move out from the mountains, then our children might not know where we came from. I ought to make a document of our village’s history,” one villager lamented.
Besides the loss of their former communities, other villagers are worried that they won’t be able to adapt to society in the bigger towns. “I have no education,” one lamented, “I only have my physical strength. How will I find a job?”
In Guizhou, one family of two was told by their village’s Party boss that as part of the plan, in addition to Rmb50,000 compensation, they would be provided road-sweeping jobs paying them Rmb600 per month.
But some may be sceptical of the government’s promises. Reportedly hundreds of the people moved to make way for the Three Gorges Dam are still awaiting compensation.
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