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Recommendations Regarding Hydropower Development and the Rights of China’s Ethnic Peoples

Most of China’s water resources are found in China’s western regions with 70% coming from China’s southwest.  Since the beginning of this century, the core of China’s hydropower development focused on middle and upstream portions of rivers in southwest China. This region also serves as the central native land of many of China’s ethnic minorities.  In early 2013, China’s State Council issued a plan for resource development in its 12th five year plan with details to design and begin construction on more than 60 major hydropower projects between 2011 and 2015.  China is entering into an explosive period of rapid and unprecedented development of its hydropower industry.

For the next twenty years more than 8 million ethnic minorities will be affected by the development and planning of dams.  With the expressed state agenda of establishing a sustainable hydropower industry, achieving social stability in ethnic minorities areas, and realizing the “Chinese dream” for all of China’s citizens, how will the Central government guide law and policy to provide rational standardization, coordination, and management to the interests of the state, industry, and of ethnic minority groups?

According to the principles of “Encouraging the Benefits of Ethnic Autonomous Areas” set forth by the Chinese Constitution, the Law of Ethnic Autonomous Zones advanced a new regulation in 2005 to “encourage the production and livelihood of local ethnic minorities.”  This broad-based regulation passed as part of one of three items in the addendum to the State Council’s PRC Legislation on the Autonomy of Ethnic Regions. Yet to date, there is no specific clarification to the rights of local ethnic minorities or details concerning the autonomy of ethnic areas within the language of the basic law.  The administrative regulations of the State Council list only one related clause: The regulation of peaceful migration should respect the production methods, the lifestyle, and customs of ethnic minorities.

A new policy promulgated in 2012 by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) requiring state sponsored development projects to first oversee the migration of peoples before beginning construction has no mention of protecting the rights of local ethnic minorities. Laws and regulations related to the issue of ethnic minority protection do indeed exist, but because there is no guarantee on the methods of protecting procedural justice or monitoring processes, these laws and regulation cannot reach efficient levels of execution.  Not long ago, the publications of the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Party Congress emphasized the Chinese Communist Party’s views of ethnic policy, guaranteeing the legal benefits of ethnic minorities and bolstering and developing the equal unity and mutual harmonious relations of socialist peoples.

In past years, researchers carrying out investigative field study on the beneficial effects of hydropower development toward the ethnic peoples of the Jinsha River, Lancang (Mekong) River, Nu (Salween) River, Yalong River, Min River, and the Dadu River discovered that the everyday livelihoods and production methods of ethnic peoples living along these rivers are immensely affected by the development of hydropower projects.  In the early development and planning stages, hydropower projects are requested to maintain a holding status before beginning construction.  For many unknown reasons this holding status could continue for many years.  The clearing of roads with dynamite creates air and noise pollution and along with the risks of falling rocks and landslides, greatly affects the safety of people and livestock and the volume of agricultural harvests.  Dam construction and rising waters force people to move.  This uprooting destroys longstanding social networks, privately held assets and shared natural resources such as traditional collecting, fishing, and grazing methods that rely on forests, pasture lands and wetlands.  What is lost is not justly compensated for.

The rights of ethnic groups to be informed, to participate, to express views, and to monitor procedures are not respected or guaranteed with the development of hydropower projects and in many ways these rights are illegally violated.  The relevant institutions of local governments cannot realistically carry out existing laws and regulations, and hydropower firms ignore the law failing to take social responsibility for the protection of vulnerable groups.  Large scale hydropower firms – particularly central level hydropower firms – exact great profits from local areas but remit taxes to the major cities in which they are registered.  The benefits received by localities are greatly out of proportion with the costs borne.


In consideration to the issues raised above and to the demands of the 18th Party Congress, the suggestions below should be considered. Generally, the Central government should re-examine existing hydropower projects and immediately clarify and formulate policy that guarantees the benefits of ethnic peoples in China’s western regions affected the by hydropower development.

1.       Clarify policy and approaches suitable for Western ethnic regions

In western ethnic regions, the Central government should incorporate a guarantee of the basic rights of ethnic peoples as an indicator of sustainable development. The Central government should coordinate development of hydropower projects in ethnic areas giving basic consideration to resource safety, economic development, guarantees of the rights of ethnic peoples, and ecological protection. The activities surrounding hydropower development should respect and guaranteed the basic rights of ethnic people including political, economic, and cultural rights. In accordance to law, ethnic peoples should not be discriminated against and should equally participate in and enjoy the benefits of resulting from economic development in their localities.  They also have the rights to maintain their value systems, religious observance, and unique ways of living.  Moreover they have rights to protect the natural resources such as the land, rivers, forests, and pastureland on which they have existed for many years.

Moreover, the Central government should amend the legal and policy framework on the Law of Ethnic Autonomous Zones within the Chinese Constitution to protect the basic rights of citizens and ethnic peoples.  While strengthening relevant polices, the Central government should expedite policy on formulating specific guarantees of the protection of peoples affected by hydropower development and ensure the implementation and execution of these policies.

2.       Guarantee procedural justice in the processes of hydropower development

In the development of hydropower projects, firms and local governments should respect and protect the rights of ethnic groups and individuals to be informed, participate, make decisions, and monitor procedures. Hydropower firms should establish corporate social responsibility systems that pay particular attention to respecting and protecting the rights of ethnic peoples while operating.  Firms should incorporate this kind of responsibility into their specific duties and make public record of their CSR work on a regular basis.  Firms should also take initiative in accepting monitoring presences of multiple levels of society.

The Central government should establish systems for assessing the impact on the rights of ethnic peoples.  Results of the impact assessment should serve as key findings for the approval of hydropower projects.

The Central government should monitor the entire process of relocation of people related to hydropower development and provide support and effective relief to ethnic peoples whose rights are violated.  The government should establish and open various channels of complaints mechanisms, provide various forms of legal assistance, and eliminate obstacles that prevent ethnic groups and their members in accessing these systemic mechanisms to realize their rights and receive relief.


3.       Guarantee mutual benefit for ethnic people and hydropower development

In ethnic areas, large-scale hydropower firms and central level hydropower firms, by principle, should register for license in the locale in which they operate and pay taxes to that locale.  An alternative could be for the hydropower firm and the autonomous local government should come to agreement on an appropriate distribution of taxes to the locale under the supervision of relevant managing government organizations,

Hydropower firms and local governments should make best efforts to reduce the relocation of people due to hydropower construction and resolutely block forced migration.  Hydropower firms and local governments should make best efforts to reduce the negative impacts of hydropower development on ethnic people’s environment, economy, society, culture, and spirit.  Hydropower firms and local governments should provide fair and appropriate compensation to ethnic groups and individuals for the material, physical, and spiritual damage and impacts caused by activities related to hydropower development.

Hydropower firms and local governments should appropriately provide accordant compensation for negative social, economic, and cultural impacts of past hydropower projects on the basis of social impact assessment and an impact assessment on ethnic people’s rights. Hydropower firms should provide monies for the protection of resources and development funds in affected communities. Firms should provide compensation to and protect the resources and development of intangible assets, communally shared natural resources, and collective impacts that are difficult to compensate at the individual level.

Local governments should adopt measures to protect the cultural heritage of ethnic peoples, to aid ethnic peoples in the passing down and development of their own history, culture, language, traditions, and customs and guarantee the protection of their own cultural heritage and historical traditions.

4.       Fully utilize the function of social organizations

In the realm of social administration, the diversification of social administration is a common and successful experience of developed countries.  It is also a mainstream trend of modern social administration.  Popularized global “New Administration” philosophies purport:

“Governments are not the only pillar of public rights. rather citizens, individuals, and non-government organizations can become pillars of public management.  Under a set of shared goals non-government organizations can participate in public policy making processes and provide public services.  The responsibilities of public affairs administration and the advocacy for the satisfaction of social and economic needs can be collectively shared through the cooperation between social groups and government.”

With the reforms of China’s government institutions and new rounds of innovation in public administration, the function of social organizations in public administration and social life becomes more apparent on a daily basis.  The government should make full use of social organizations in regard to the protection of ethnic peoples and western hydropower development.  The Central government should encourage relevant social organizations to participate in the activities of local hydropower development, participate in the ecological impact assessment, social impact assessment, and social monitoring of hydropower development.  Finally the Central government should utilize the contracting of services to support positive contributions and innovative practices that social organizations can make toward the social administration of ethnic areas.

This is the final part of a 5 part series on hydropower and the rights of ethnic minorities living in the upper Yangtze River valley.  Link here to part 1.  

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The weak vs. the strong: Ethnic villagers, the government, and hydropower firms

As China increases its hydropower development plans into the 21st century, an estimated 8 million ethnic people in southwest China, many of them Tibetan, Miao, and Yi will be forced to leave their remote mountain homes. My previous posts this week focused on unjust and inappropriate compensation ethnic villagers in the Yalong River valley have received during the relocation process.  During this process, local government and hydropower development firms give very little consideration to the rights of ethnic villagers.  They also give very little consideration to  existing laws protecting these marginalized people.

In the valley between the Kala and Yangfanggou dam sites, two large billboards sport eye-catching slogans.  One says, “Maximize people’s benefits within the limits of law and policy” and the other “Crack down swiftly with the heavy hand of the law against illegal acts disturbing public affairs.”

牌 打击阻工扰工

To address the second billboard, in the eyes of the law there are two kinds of illegal acts.  One kind is simply a violation of the law.  The other constitutes a crime punishable by swift and heavy measures.  Legal expert Zhou Yong of Norway University, Oslo questions the legal grounds for the Public Security Bureau to erect this billboard.  Specifically, which law is the billboard referring to?  And to what extent do swift and heavy measures apply? He continues his critique of the local public security bureau’s abuse of the law by adding that the final judicial organ deciding cases are courts, not the public security bureau.

Citizens have the right to act and react to changes going on around them especially in ethnic areas where China’s Law of Ethnic Autonomous Areas applies.  Citizens should be aware of their rights and enjoy their rights. The role of NGOs should be to ensure that people can be protected by certain laws and regulations in ethnic areas.  In addition, basic rights of personal safety and right of property should be guaranteed.

Yang Lin, an expert in social impact assessment adds that the billboards are very thought provoking.  Reading them together seems to suggest that the government will provide you with what you need, so there’s nothing to worry about.  But on the flipside, the sign indicates that if the government does not give you what it has promised, you shouldn’t ask for it again.  This kind of ex-post behavior by relocated villagers is illegal and will be punished.

Article 27 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People declares:

States shall establish and implement, in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process, giving due recognition to indigenous peoples’ laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems, to recognize and adjudicate the rights of indigenous peoples pertaining to their lands, territories and resources,  including those which were traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used. Indigenous peoples shall have the right to participate in this process.

Today China is the building more hydropower projects than any other country in the world.  In the new energy development plan, over 60 major hydropower dams and several hundred small and medium sized ones will be built along the Jinsha River (Yangtze), Lancang River (Mekong), Nu River (Salween), Yalong River, Min River Brahmaputra river, and the main stem of The number of ethnic minority people resettled will soon reach eight million. This will be the largest-scale involuntary resettlement in China’s history.

A promotional film for the Ertan dam says that all Chinese people will benefit from hydropower and that China will reach through to new heights from which all mankind will benefit.

A local villager from Danbo disagrees.

“We had to go away for seven days to attend the review and assessment process.  Each family had to send a representative.  We are uneducated and had no idea who might be in charge of the assessment.  All we got were review forms.”  During our meeting she produced a thin stack of official looking forms.  “My husband became mentally ill because of this.  He is still taking medicine to control the illness.”

As a country, China has a plan for the development of the national economy and will try its best to realize the goal of energy security and sustainable resource development.  But hydropower development firms only seek to maximize profits.  The country has power, and the firms have money.  When power and money come together they will inevitably put a third party at disadvantage.

When “weak” individuals face a “strong” government and hydropower firm, the interests and needs of these individuals usually cannot be protected or heard. The Chinese government should fulfill its obligations by exercising its administrative powers within the framework of law. It should solve this issue according to the current laws, regulations, and the international conventions that China has approved.  For example the UN Human Rights Convention requires that China follow related international law and assume international obligations. When solving conflicts between three parties, the most important thing is to make sure that concerns of the people can be heard. Throughout this process, people should be able to make use of various channels and platforms to raise their concerns.

Yu Xiaogang surveys a group of relocated villagers in the Yalong River Valley

Yu Xiaogang surveys a group of relocated villagers in the Yalong River Valley

During our surveying, countless villagers vented their frustration to my research team. “We can’t sleep at night.  We can’t concentrate on our work during the day, and why is that? Back then, though we were poor, we had enough food and warm clothes.  If we move to a new place, we will lose these.”

Another shared, “We can’t afford to leave, but we can’t afford to stay.  We are sorry to cause such troubles for the Party, but this is a really big problem.”

“They used dynamite this time.  The gods of the mountains and the Buddhist spirits all left.  Some people will die now.  Some will fall ill.  Some will go crazy.”

This is the 2nd in a five part series on ethnic resettlement and the impacts of hydropower development by Yu Xiaogang.  Link here to part 5 and here to link back to part 1.


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Ethnic Resettlement: Resistance & Villagers’ Rights:

The pain of resettlement

The pain of resettlement

For years in China’s southwest, water engineering and hydropower firms companies have been fanatical about building more dams.  Plans of demolition and removal of villages and structures obstructing dam design are always being put in place before plans for resettlement and compensation are appropriately thought out. Ordinary people can only wait in passive anxiety for the uncertainties related to resettlement and their future to be resolved. They are destined to make sacrifices for so-called development.

“Back there are our mountains, our meadows, our fields, and our villages,” says a villager in Shangpu village downstream of the Kala hydropower plant on the Yalong River as she points to her former home up the valley. “The fog is because of the pollution, it’s heartbreaking to see this place become polluted,” The dam’s designer wanted to use the flat land of the village as a location for a construction camp.  Eighty people were relocated to an alluvial terrace two kilometers away.

“The local government told us to do whatever the Ertan company people say,” adds the villager.

Most villagers saw little sense in moving since their village, a place they lived in for generations would not be displaced by the rising reservoir created by the dam. Many resisted.

“The elder in my family, my father, held my hand on his deathbed, holding on to his last breath. I told him ‘we will not leave here, don’t you worry, just go without regret.’ Hearing these words, he let go and passed away. I said these words myself. Only these words could comfort him,” says a Shangpu villager who has refused to move to the resettlement.   In all, eighty families signed a pact with their fingerprints to resist relocation and are still resisting to this day.

“My father said the water we drink comes from the Himalayas.  Drink the water and our children will be blessed.” The villagers are connected to their land in ways that urban city dwellers and lowland farmers fail to comprehend.  “Our ancestors left this place for us, and we have lived here for generations. The mountains and water are all wonderful. The trees, every family has walnut trees and apple trees. We don’t have to go out to work for money. The families that live here are already living a good life, that’s why no one wants to leave.”

When my research team conducted a focus group discussion with the Shangpu villagers, the trauma associated with relocation was palpable.  A group of village women sobbed openly and angrily.

Shangpu villagers weeping uncontrollably at the thought of relocation

Shangpu villagers weeping uncontrollably at the thought of relocation

A local villager added through her tears, “The Immigration Office said that we have to move no matter what, but we can’t afford to move. We are just poor farmers, we have a hard life. We can’t afford to move.  Nothing will change no matter how hard they cry.  Nothing will change if the policy has already been made. When the people of Immigration Office came here, our people asked them to please let us stay here, please think of something to help us. Many old people started to cry and got ill.”

Yang Lin, an expert in social impact assessment admits exploiting 3000 megawatts while only having to resettle a small group of people is a good bargain on paper.  But there is no reason for resettlement not to be done properly.  China does not lack the resources to justly compensate these villagers.  When securing the benefits for hydropower and construction firms, the government spares no effort.  So why can’t villagers receive the similar treatment?

The government’s official response is to prioritize the successful construction of major development projects to ensure development targets are met.  Yet the reality is proper resettlement of displaced peoples will not impede construction.  Many social and economic problems, many of them unnecessary, arise when the government seeks to solely protect the profits of the developers.  In the end, the Chinese people have to pay for the government to solve these problems and conflicts that are neglected in the early phases of construction and planning.

In 2007 China became a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which  says:

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources. (Article 32)

Villagers’ rights to consent, participate, and be informed in the resettlement process or the project design process is always neglected.  A case in point is Danbo Village, the first village to be resettled as a result of the Yanfanggou dam. The villagers have lived in anxiety of resettlement for years.  They had no prior notification of the dam project, and one day surveyors hired by the hydropower firm showed up unannounced to measure and assess the “value” of the village.

In a focus group discussion, a villager recalled the process.  “No one has explained resettlement to us. Our people are very confused. See, like that,” as he pointed to unidentifiable chalk scribblings on his home.  “They taped measured here, and there, and drew some lines and left. We had no idea what happened.”

None of the villagers was satisfied with the result.  Many remember the surveyors measuring very little during their time and noted that much property was left out of the assessment.  Another villager added, “They came here but did not take the measuring seriously. They only measured for a little while and concluded ‘That will do.’ They didn’t measure as they promised, at all! I have worked my land day after day, all by myself, until my hair turned white, but did they measure the land? The trees, I planted them one by one and the rice fields. Did they count them? No.”

Danbo villagers will be resettled to Muli in Xianyuan township where purchasing a house costs five to six hundred thousand yuan (USD $80,000 to $95,000), in addition relocated villagers must purchase land to cultivate at the cost of RMB 110,000 with a potential yield of RMB 200,000 per year.  “All they offer us for compensation is two to three hundred thousand yuan in total! We can’t start a new life with that little bit of money.  What we need is fairness, equity, and justice.”

The Danbo villagers recall another time a group of government officials and hydropower firm representatives came to the village.  Again arriving unannounced, this time at eight or nine o’clock at night, the group held a two hour meeting where they lectured to the villagers.  There were forty or fifty of them and the director general gave the first speech followed by the deputy general and further on down the line.  The officials held documents in their hand and read directly from them speaking only in official language and speaking only in Mandarin.

Most villagers had no clue as to what the officials were reading.  After two hours, the meeting concluded and the officials went for dinner.  Some stayed behind and measured the land and the houses the following day.   “They were all over the mountain, like ants.  In our language when we say they are like ants, it means the kind of insect that crowds together when it finds a bug,” concluded one villager.

When discussing resettlement with the group anxiety and tension levels immediately intensified.  Many noted that they cannot focus on their work with the uncertain outcomes associated with resettlement and compensation occupying their minds.  Part of my team’s approach to social impact assessment is to conduct a legal briefing with the village group.  A colleague Zhou Yong, Professor of Law at Norway University, Oslo informed the group of one of their most important legal rights: a citizen’s right to know. All Chinese citizens enjoy this right, just as citizens likewise have the right to request information.

The villagers have the right to know the time frame for the dam’s construction.  It is unjust to create an environment where villagers are waiting in limbo for resettlement.  Sometimes projects are postponed for five to ten years while the affected people live in anxiety.

 Social impact expert Yang Lin advocates that in order to guarantee the right to know, the first thing to do is to inform the citizens before the launch of a project. Local governments or hydropower firms cannot only tell them to accept it after the plan has been made. This will give them the time to think about the projects, to raise suggestions and objections. Second, people should know about the overall plan, including the standard of the compensation and the overall plan for resettlement. Third, in ethnic minority areas, simply making an announcement or issuing a notice does not amount to the “guarantee the right of informed consent.” The related department should offer a detailed explanation to the people, answer their questions, and let them truly understand the related information.

Citizens should have the chance to participate in the whole process, from planning to the completion of the whole project. A system needs to be established to make sure people’s voices can be heard. A processing and a feedback system to guarantee citizens’ opinions will be taken into consideration and influence the making of the final decision. Without these systems, participation is just a meaningless and mere formality.

What happens to villagers who refuse to resettle?   A Danbo villager recounted her experience:

“I told them that we could not afford to move. They said moving or not was my own business, but they had to measure the house anyway. Then I told them to stop measuring the house, and some of them replied that if I didn’t allow them to measure this time, next time people from a higher level would be sent and force would be used. Most of us were frightened by the threat.”

This is the 3rd in a five part series on ethnic resettlement and the impacts of hydropower development by Yu Xiaogang. Link here to part 4 and here to link back to part 1.



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Hydropower and ethnic resettlement in the Yalong River valley

Sichuan's Yalong River Valley.  Image: josephrock.net

Sichuan’s Yalong River Valley. Image: josephrock.net

The Yalong river is one of the largest tributaries of China’s Yangtze river watershed.  Originating in Qinghai province, the 1368 kilometer long river system creates some of the deepest gorges in the world falling 3180 meters in elevation before flowing into the Yangtze at Panzhihua in southern Sichuan province.  According to the 2013 Twelfth Five Year Plan for resources management issued by the Chinese National Energy Administration, 21 dams will be built on the mainstream of the Yalong River and two of the dams will be the highest in the world.  The Plan also includes the completion of several hydropower projects which have been on hold since 2005 due to concerns about the fragility of the local ecosystem and culture. Continue reading


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China needs to change its energy strategy in the Mekong region

This op-ed was first published at ChinaDialogue and thethirdpole.net on 7/16.

 Mekong bridge

At the end of this year cars and container trucks loaded with goods from China and Thailand will finally be able to drive across a multi-lane bridge spanning the Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China). The bridge will connect Chiang Rai province in Thailand to Bokeo province in Laos, effectively linking China’s highways stretching south from Beijing and Shanghai to those coming north from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

Funded by equal investment from the Chinese and Thai government, the completion of the bridge, which took ten years of planning and two years to build, is not without controversy. For many years Thailand held back investment due to an uneven distribution of benefits between China, Laos and Thailand. Also on the Thai side, the NGO Rak Chiang Khong claim the bridge negatively impacts the local Golden Triangle economy and will ruin Mekong fisheries.

The Golden Triangle Bridge serves to highlight the challenges facing China, as the country’s new leadership attempts to balance its slowing and volatile economy and deliver domestic stability by maintaining peaceful economic relations with its neighbours.

China’s regional strategy

“In 2012 China’s growth in trade and outward investment with the five other Mekong countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam surpassed its trade and investment growth in ASEANcountries,” said Xu Ningning, chairman of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Business Council. “Greater growth rates will continue with increases in regional cooperation and win-win investment opportunities.”

For the past three years China’s GMS provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi have posted growth rates of 12-15%, the highest of China’s localities, and arguably China’s economic rise has also helped deliver high growth rates among Mekong countries.

The end of the Cold War in the 1990s created a favourable environment for China to develop its economic cooperation strategies toward the Mekong region. The blurring and opening of once inviolable borders encouraged traders on both sides of the China-Southeast Asia frontier to appeal to local and national governments for better conditions for trade and migration. The Chinese government responded with twenty years of state-led trade liberalisation and investment policies to promote regional cooperation in state and private sectors.

China’s economic cooperation strategies towards its four Mekong neighbours has dovetailed nicely into a strategy that fits China’s current development needs. Liu Jinxin, a policy analyst and logistics expert says, “Unlike the US which leads the world in finance and IT, both high-value service-oriented industries, China is the world’s factory, producing goods to drive the growth of its growing middle class and serving export markets around the world. To survive, the Chinese ‘factory’ needs inputs like energy and raw materials.” Continue reading

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