Sacrifices For A Future

What was supposed to be an important river damming project has turned into a nightmare for residents of one town in China. Barry Petersen reports on the local government's broken promises.
I'm Barry Petersen and this Letter from Asia comes from the village of Zhengtan in southwest China. Call it the two of two villages - The one that's going to be wiped out when this area becomes a reservoir behind a dam for a hydro-electric project, and the village that isn't here because, say the people here, the government has not kept its promise to resettle and rebuild.

Everywhere we turned the story was the same as told to us by 58-year-old Ni Shixian. The local government offered little money for rebuilding and even that would be withheld unless villagers tore down their own homes.

Now families live in makeshift shacks, without enough money to rebuild. Ni's husband is 73, and was once a proud communist. He says, "Now we live in what used to be an old pig sty."

Ran Qihau is leading the effort to get his village more money, a village only accessible by foot across this suspension bridge. "We have no road," he told me, "no electricity, no water. We are helpless."

The generations run deep into history here. The new dam will be smaller that the Three Gorges, which displaced more than a million people as its reservoir climbed. Gone are the fishermen who could feed their families from this river. Instead there are problems with pollution, and even doubts about how much electricity will really come from this sacrifice.

Back at Zhengtan, there is a surprising twist to the story. People here support China's growth. Most accept that losing the village is sad but they want China to grow.

Li Huaziang has no home for her family, including her baby Xinyi. "I feel so sad," she told us. "It is so painful."

They hoped that by telling us their stories it might force local officials to increase the compensation and finally set-aside land for new houses. But in a system where local officials often do only what they want, the chances that life here will get better once the river rises are slim.
By Barry Petersen