Diversion project proves deadly for officials
Updated: 2012-09-26 02:04
By Wang Xiaodong (China Daily)
Chen Shan holds a portrait of her deceased father, Chen Pingcheng, at home in Danjiangkou, Hubei province. Her father, an official who worked for the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, died in a traffic accident in 2011 while traveling to a mountainous town for work. JIN LIANGKUAI / XINHUA
Ma Youzhi spent the last few years of his life trying to accomplish one of the hardest tasks imaginable for a grassroots official: Persuading villagers to leave their ancestral homes.
As a senior Party official for Xichuan county in Henan province, he had volunteered to help relocate 1,800 people to higher ground to make way for China's massive water diversion project.
Before his death at the age of 52 from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2010, much of his time was spent in Xiangyang village, a 30-minute commute from his home.
"I seldom saw him then," said his wife, Du Liman. "Sometimes he'd be gone for a week at a time."
Ma is one of the 18 low-level officials working on the South-to-North Water Diversion Project in Henan and Hubei provinces who have died in recent years.
Those on the frontline of the project face intense pressure from tight schedules and residents' resistance to change.
Du said her husband at one point even moved into the village so he could respond to any trivial requests as soon as possible, but he had to give it up due to his excessive workload.
"A month before he died, he had his yearly health checkup," she recalled. "The doctor warned him then that he had dangerously high blood cholesterol and suggested he take a rest. But he refused.
"Maybe he wouldn't have died so early if he had listened to that suggestion," she said, stifling a sob. "He always said work comes first and never asked for leave. If he had a headache, he just took pills and took half a day off."
After her husband's death, the county government gave Du a lump-sum payout of 60,000 yuan ($9,500), according to policy. She said she is now in bad health and is considering retiring, while the couple's son has graduated from vocational school and works in another city.
The vast Danjiangkou Reservoir, which stretches across counties in both Henan and Hubei, will be the water source for the central route of the South-North Water Diversion Project, one of the world's largest undertakings of its kind.
According to the schedule, fresh water from the Yangtze River will be transferred to drought-prone North China, including Beijing, by 2014.
To make this happen, the reservoir had to be raised from 162 meters to 176.6 meters, submerging 300 sq km of land in the process, as well as the homes of about 345,000 people.
"Relocation is key to the success of the central route," said Jiang Xuguang, deputy director of the Office of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project Commission, under the State Council.
"Most of this work has been finished after two years of effort. Relocations in Henan were completed in May, and by mid-September the relocation in Hubei will be finished, too."
He credited the progress to the sacrifices made by hundreds of thousands of families, and added: "We should never forget the grassroots officials. Without their dedication, the project would be impossible. Mobilizing so many people in such a short space of time is a task of unprecedented difficulty."
Thanks to the work of public servants responsible for enforcing policy in affected areas, Jiang added, the relocation plan had resulted in no major conflicts that led to death or injury.
In practice, persuading families to move is extremely complex and disputes are common, said Wang Shibao, a village official handling relocation in Danjiangkou, a city in Hubei.
"Abandoning your land and almost everything you have to immigrate to a place you are totally unfamiliar with is very difficult for many villagers," he said. "Even if we tell them about the favorable policies offered by the government, such as compensation and subsidies for new houses, we find many of them would rather stay in their shabby houses and not move."
Chinese farmers traditionally tend to value their family and land, and separation is far from acceptable.
"It's not uncommon to see elderly people fill a bottle with the earth from their farmland before setting out on the journey to their new home," Wang said.
Zhou Xingrong, who runs a pesticide business in Hubei's Shiyan city, said she had concerns when she learned last year her village would be relocated.
"I already had some regular customers, so I was uncertain about moving my business to a new place," she said. "After repeated visits from village officials, however, I learned the importance of the water project."
Zhou's family of eight received 140,000 yuan ($22,000) in compensation to resettle to higher ground, and has already spent 50,000 yuan on two new apartments in a resettlement area.
"If my pesticide business declines in the new place, I'll probably switch to catering to tourists instead," she added.
A need for sleep
Most of the 18 officials working on the relocation project who died suffered from illnesses, such as hypertension or diabetes, the government said.
However, Wang Shibao said the busy work schedule also prevented them from taking better care of their health.
"The work is very tiring, and I can say all of us have experienced insomnia at some point," he said. "Sometimes villagers vent their dissatisfaction by directing it at us."
Ji Jiancheng, an official handling the relocation in Xixian county, Henan, agreed and added: "After each phase is finished, all we crave is to sleep and find a place to cry aloud."
To sway resistant residents, Wang said, officials try every means, even agreeing to strange requests to keep the peace.
"The most useful method is to establish emotional bonds and make friends with them," he explained. "Treating them to wine is a good way to make new friends.
"One villager also told me he would only move if I helped him sell his peacocks and pigs. We didn't have much time, so several colleagues and I bought the pig and had it slaughtered."
Wang added that, as grassroots officials live in or come from villages, and often have seen their families relocated, they can empathize with residents.
"We understand that it's not easy," he said. "When you are accompanying a caravan of trucks stretching 10 km filled with migrants and their belongings, you can see how many sacrifices they are making."
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