Proud of protest, silent on politics

Dissent: Farmers' success against a dam project shows the Communist Party's difficulty keeping the lid on.

February 13, 2005|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HANYUAN COUNTY, China - The rice farmers sitting in this living room have proved that they are not people who flee from confrontation. A few months ago, they were among 60,000 to 100,000 people facing down the Communist Party by physically blocking construction of a hydroelectric dam that one day will submerge the land their families have lived on for centuries.

These farmers stood their ground in the face of thousands of armed soldiers and police. The farmers went so far as to encircle the party secretary of Sichuan province, preventing the highest-ranking provincial official from leaving the county seat for hours.

And the farmers appear to have won, wringing from the central government a promise of a delay in dam construction and better relocation deals. The men sitting here were quietly exultant, proud to be part of what might have been the largest incident of social unrest in China since the democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But for farmers in Communist China, fighting for their land is one thing. Talking about politics is quite another - and sometimes far more intimidating.

Ask these same farmers how they feel about Zhao Ziyang, the former Communist Party chief who died last month after being under house arrest for 15 years for sympathizing with the Tiananmen protesters, and the atmosphere of proud defiance is immediately punctured.

"As a peasant, I don't dare to talk about politics," said a 36-year-old farmer activist, his easy tobacco-stained grin replaced by a wary scowl. "When we talk about politics, there will never be any benefit for us."

In today's China, farmers virtually own their land, though the Communist Party can seize it unfairly. But the party owns politics absolutely, and it employs all the powers of its propaganda machine and its security apparatus to ensure that it retains full control.

That much is evident in the story of the peasants and their land, of their late former provincial leader - Zhao, who went on to lead the national party after his reforms lifted them out of poverty - and of the corrupt leaders today whose dam project threatens to return the peasants to poverty.

It is the sort of history known to the participants but few others in China, for the true record is not likely be printed in the newspapers or the history books as long as the Communist Party controls them.

The story of the Hanyuan dam protest has added a chapter to a lengthy history of modern China that the Communist Party continues working mightily to suppress and rewrite, in order to assure its own survival.

But the number of incidents that must be suppressed is rising, and controlling information about them is ever more difficult. Chinese intellectuals, activists and overseas agitators hope that one day this expansive secret history, and its heroic leaders such as Zhao, will surface to haunt the party.

There were 58,000 public protests in 2003 alone, according to government statistics, a 14 percent increase from the year before and almost 50,000 more than a decade earlier. The protests at Hanyuan County in southwestern China - two demonstrations spanning more than a week - might have been larger than any of those.

On Oct. 27, when huge trucks rolled into the site of the Pubugou dam with loads of earth and rubble, ready to fill in and divert the Dadu River, the farmers of the river valley figured out what local officials had not bothered to tell them: Major work on the dam wall was about to begin.

The farmers were already resentful at how authorities had kept them in the dark about the dam's progress, angry that corrupt officials had siphoned off money for their relocation and distressed by the prospect of resettlement into poverty.

One by one, they made their choice, walking down to the dam site, blocking the trucks from unloading their rubble.

It was not just the current generation of men and women tending their rice paddies who were making their stand. It was their children, too, many of whose futures were likely being diverted into poverty so that the prospering cities could have more electricity.

And it was the farmers' parents and their grandparents, elderly men and women who had labored for nearly two decades to carve tens of miles of irrigation ditches up into the steep slopes and sheer cliffs of the valley's towering snow-covered mountains, risking their lives so that their children and grandchildren would live better.

A day later, Oct. 28, the protests swelled. Thousands of students boycotted class, the peasants said, and more than 1,000 middle school pupils marched on the Hanyuan County government building. Business owners closed shops; farmers refused to sell vegetables to markets.

"The whole county was paralyzed," the farmer activist said.

People started taking turns sitting in to block construction, and at the peak the crowd might have approached 100,000 people, roughly equivalent to the number whose homes will be submerged by the dam reservoir.

Trucks in the dark

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