Mass relocations are a staple of Chinese development. China News Weekly, a state-controlled magazine, reported last year that more than 70m people have been moved this way since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. The southern province of Guizhou plans to move some 1.5m people out of poor, mountainous areas by the end of the decade. The western province of Ningxia aims to resettle more than 350,000 of its poor by 2015. Strong-arm tactics are common, such as when the government moved more than 1.3m people for the building of the Three Gorges dam on the Yangzi River from the 1990s.Ostensibly, the reason for the move is to move people into safer places and to reduce poverty in the process.
The government has attempted to sell the project as a way of bettering citizens’ lives. Of those to be resettled, some 85% will be from the province’s mountainous south, which in recent decades has become prone to flooding and landslides caused by extensive deforestation. “This will not just be a move from danger to safety but a leap from poverty to a more comfortable life,” said Shaanxi’s governor, Zhao Zhengyong, in the wake of floods that ravaged southern Shaanxi in 2010, killing more than 300 people. One academic in Xi’an, the provincial capital, says Mr Zhao is using the project, which the government says will cost nearly $19 billion, to burnish his political credentials. The governor looks likely to win a promotion later this year to the post of provincial Communist Party secretary.But the Economist suggests that the real reason lies in Beijing's thirst for clean water.
Huge public slogans in southern Shaanxi offer a clue to what may be another impetus for the relocations. “Prevent erosion, build an ecological water-conservation system, and ensure that a river full of clean water enters Beijing” shouts a line of giant red characters near Bajiao village. Southern Shaanxi is the source of the Han river, which will provide much of the water for one of the huge projects to divert water from southern China to the dry north (see map on previous page). In particular, the scheme aims to alleviate drought around Beijing. The Han flows into the Danjiangkou reservoir in Hubei province from which water is due to be channelled to the arid capital by 2014. The government has nearly finished moving 350,000 people around Danjiangkou to make way for this project. Many grumble about corruption and poor compensation.It's obviously good to be in charge, but not so much fun to be at the bottom of the influence ladder.
Officials in Beijing are concerned that the water coming from the Han river and other sources will be polluted. Local officials often ignore environmental regulations, believing that implementing them would saddle businesses with extra costs and limit economic growth. But officials in southern Shaanxi are under immense pressure to ensure the water they send to Beijing is clean. Strict controls have been imposed on polluting industries in the area. But farming on valley slopes and contamination from agricultural chemicals still pose a big threat to the water quality on the Han and its tributaries. For many years officials have been trying, with limited success, to encourage peasants to give up growing crops on the slopes and reforest the mountains. After the flooding in 2010, the government turned this into a more organised attempt to move the farmers off the land altogether.