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Chinese farmers recall bitter days of famine for dam

Told to relocate to remote Qinghai Province in the upheavals of the Great Leap Forward,the farmers are being told to move again, this time to build a dam

By Chris Buckley  /  REUTERS , SHIZIGANG, CHINA

Poor Chinese farmers facing forced resettlement for their nation’s latest vast hydro project bear a wrenching past, none more so than the survivors of an exodus to the high northwest from 1959.

The central canal for the South-to-North Water Transfer Project will take water from the Danjiangkou Dam, which first rose during former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) fervent and ultimately calamitous attempt from 1958 to rush the country into communist plenty.

“At that the time, the country was calling for young people to volunteer to go to Qinghai,” recalled Zhao Jingzhou, a white-whiskered farmer in his late 60s from Shizigang Village beside the dam. “Material life was pretty hard, but if you went to volunteer in Qinghai you could have a safer life.”

But Zhao and thousands of other villagers found that the promise of a more secure life in the arid highlands of the northwest province next to Tibet turned to disaster.

That experience, along with decades of poverty, now echoes in the farmers’ anger at the prospect of moving again for the water transfer scheme.

“We have eaten too much suffering already,” Zhao said, using a common Chinese saying.

The villagers have been ordered to resettle hundreds of kilometers away later this year.

Fifty years ago, drawn by promises of a better life thousands of kilometers from their homes in central Henan Province, over 22,000 of the dam-side farmers signed up to move to Qinghai.

The government was opening up the long-isolated region with the same utopian zeal that inspired Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

But the Great Leap Forward and the exodus of the dam migrants ended in deadly famine that older villagers in Shizigang recalled in matter-of-fact, sometimes bitter, tones.

“All there was to eat was paste,” Zhao said, describing a kind of nutritionless glue that famished farmers pounded from roots and wild plants. “A lot of people starved, especially the older ones who fell sick. There was no medicine for them.”

Historians believe that about 20 million, perhaps up to 30 million, Chinese people died from lack of food as Mao’s attempt to create massive communes and collective canteens collapsed in inefficiency, mismanagement and widespread brutality.

The old farmers of Shizigang also said that the reservoir, now the centerpiece of the water transfer project, was spared none of that suffering.

“There was no food to eat so I went to Qinghai. When we first went it was okay. Life was harder but we could manage,” said Shi Jinsheng, another dam migrant who volunteered to move to the northwest in 1959. “But then there was less food there and then none. Our bellies bloated like babies’.”

One local author, Mei Jie, quoted documents from the Qinghai famine in her 2007 history of the dam and the transfer project, The Great River Goes North.

“Owing to poor living adjustment, as well as the climate and poor acclimatization, not only is the spread of epidemics extremely serious, the death rate is about 30 percent,” stated one 1961 government report from Xichuan County, Henan, which sent the dam migrants to Qinghai.

That would mean about 7,000 died. Other documents in the book put the number at about 5,400.

Nearly all the survivors fled back to the dam area, either escaping, as Zhao did, or later moving back with the help of officials. Those still alive are now scattered around there, or the other towns and villages where they were later resettled.

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