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Hard Luck, Hard Work Tales Of Forced Migrants Of China's Three Gorges Dam

Some 1.2 million were forced to relocate by China's massive Three Gorges project. Moving to unfamiliar land, many of these internal migrants struggle. Some tell another story.

Terraced fields in Ping'an village
Terraced fields in Ping'an village
Du Yuan

More than a decade ago, residents of Gaoyang Village in Chongqing piled into buses that would take them to their new homes 300 kilometers away in Ping’an Village. As they left, crowds cheered for them, supporting the sacrifice they were about to make for their country.

The people of Gaoyang were just a handful of the 1.2 million forced by the construction of Three Gorges Dam to move to other regions. For more than ten years, these migrants have been followed by different media outlets. Sometimes they’re smiling and anxious to talk about their new lives. Sometimes they remain heartbroken and give a much bleaker narrative. But no matter what, for these internal Chinese migrants, life has forever changed.

Jiangjin District is home to 8,000 Three Gorges migrants. At the end of 2001, Chen Peiqing and his family got on the bus with some furniture following in a truck behind.

After a sleepless night, they arrived at the place where they’d probably spend the rest of their lives: a newly-built two-story house was waiting for them. It was spacious and well-lit, but still today, the only pieces of furniture in the house are those Chen brought from Gaoyang 11 years ago.

His household was allotted three acres of local farmland for growing rice, which the government bought from local residents. But Chen and his wife Huang Mingxiang had grown cotton back in their hometown. They had no idea how to plant rice, so they had to hire temporary workers to help out.

“Some of our land was so close to other households that their ducks and chickens would eat our plants,” Chen says.

After the rocky start, life has gotten easier for Chen and his family. His children now work in other provinces and can send money home. But they still aren’t totally adjusted, and may never be. Some migrants marry locals, but generally, the two groups live their lives separately. And indeed Huang said that she and her husband prefer to associate with other migrants.

Their financial setbacks aren’t over either. Two years ago, every household in the village had to pay 8,000 RMB ($1,285) for gas, a water heater and a kitchen range. And this year, the “Countryside Reconstruction Project” is requiring everyone to get their roof painted for 40 RMB ($6.43) per square meter.

An immigrant's dream

Looking at the buildings in Ping’an Village, Yao Qiong gets quite emotional. Back in Gaoyang, Yao’s husband made a living as a contractor, while she farmed the land. “But here, we don’t know anyone,” said the middle-aged woman. “We don’t get calls, we don’t have anyone to help build a network. We’re not even wanted as employees for others.”

Yao later tried beekeeping, which would allow her to receive government subsidies. Unfortunately, her bee boxes got stolen and her subsidy application was put on hold. She’s still struggling to earn money.

Ye Liqiao tells a somewhat different story. Widely respected by other villagers, this short and tanned woman is dressed neatly with her hair tied back in a ponytail. Ye spends much of her time in the mountains 10 kilometers away looking after her forest and goats.

In 2006, Ye and her husband were resettled in Wutan Town, where they were allotted small scattered pieces of lands. Rather than simply trying to grow what she could on those plots, she decided to seek a loan in order to open a local supermarket. Since then, she’s always been on the lookout for new projects. She later invested in a fertilizer factory and then started another business planting trees and the one raising goats.

Ye said that when she was younger, the only path she saw was working for others, getting married and having children. But her fresh start in Wutan inspired her to be bold and build her own business. “Immigration was a good thing for me,” she said.

At the beginning of 2011, Ye was diagnosed with a severe case of Raynaud disease, a rare blood vessel disorder that cuts circulation to fingers and toes. She said that like Yao Qiong, she’s faced many difficulties from being an outsider in the new town, but by now locals come to Ye for advice on how to get rich.

She tells them that even if you have children, there are many jobs you can still do from home. “Starting a business is risky,” she says, “but there’s no chance for wealth if you always do what seems most comfortable.”

Translated by Dou Yiping

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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