Hanyuan County in western China has always been a rough and rowdy place. The town began as a trading center and military outpost deep in the mountains frequented by fierce Yi tribesman, Tibetan Khampa warriors and Han adventurers from around Sichuan. Over the years, the people gained a thick skin and a chippy attitude that has stayed with them until modern times. The last great historical event in Hanyuan was the utter defeat of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom’s western armies on the banks of the Dadu River by Qing Imperial forces — this battle was so bloody and brutal that contemporary Qing historians sympathized with the rebels, to a certain degree.
The remnants of that southern Taiping rebel army scattered to the hills and according to local legend, helped develop a martial arts culture that fused with and influenced the nearby Emei Mountain Gong Fu style. To this day, Hanyuan has a disproportionate number of traditional martial arts schools which help man the police forces and mafias of Sichuan Province. Hanyuan people drink hard, play hard and fight hard and for the past 10 years, they have been fighting a losing battle with the government’s plans to develop the region. The long struggle was renewed recently when farmers and migrant workers once again violently challenged the government’s re-location scheme last week.
Pubu Gorge Dam
The Pubu Gorge Dam is one of the nation’s bigger hydroelectric projects and upon completion will generate 3,300 megawatts of power annually and is key to the Sichuan Provincial government’s goal of 15,000 megawatts of total output from the Da Du River by 2020. In contrast, the Three Gorges Dam alone is expected to have an installed capacity of 18,200 megawatts. The Pubu Dam project is part of the central government’s 15-year plan to develop energy resources for the entire country under the “electricity from the West, money from the East” program, referring to the vastly untapped energy resources in China’s poorer Western regions and the wealthier and electricity starved benefactors along the eastern seaboard
The reservoir created by the dam will leave most of Hanyuan Town underneath a lake. The local government has a re-settlement plan for the locals who are affected by the Pubu Gorge Dam, but as with most such plans in China, corruption robs the re-settlement fund of the required cash and promises made by officials are never kept. The apartment buildings meant to house the farmers who have lost their land are shoddy and will not last more than a few years, according to Hanyuan residents. The money that was supposed to last until 2008 — when the Dam was scheduled to be completed — has run out and the Dam is far from completed.
In 2004, farmers rose up against the local government, surrounding the local Party office and demanding appropriate compensation for lands, homes and crops they lost when the government forced them to relocate. The stand-off in 2004 forced newly appointed CPC Boss Hu Jintao to send in the military to quell this most recent rebellion — this translation of an essay by He Qinglian is a good analysis of the political scene at the time. What exactly happened is unclear — foreign media were thrown out, domestic media were brought to heel and the locals adhere to a code of silence. According to some eyewitness reports that made it out of Hanyuan, the soldiers massacred the rebels and their leaders. Whatever the truth is, the protests in Hanyuan went silent and the central government temporarily halted construction on the Pubu Gorge Dam to wait for everything to blow over.
The relocation process was again delayed by the earthquake in 2008, but is rumbling back to life this week over the trampled bodies of locals fighting for their livelihoods.
The Most Difficult Highway in the World
The last leg of the trunk highway from Kunming to Beijing runs right passed Hanyuan. This part of the highway, called the Yalu Highway, is more than 50% bridges and tunnels including one tunnel more than 3 miles long — one of the longest in the world. The elevation of the bridges, the depth and length of the tunnels and the fact that more than half of the Yalu must be dug out of or span the peaks of western Sichuan makes it the most difficult highway in the world to design and build.
Just like with the dam, the highway also requires a mass relocation of poverty stricken locals. These people have been bullied, cheated and lied to by the government and have repeatedly sued and marched for justice. All to no avail; the Hanyuan authorities are as brutal as they are corrupt and after Hu Jintao ordered the military to quell riots in 2004, the government has the green light for violent dispersal of all rebels and protesters. The long-term plan is to use modernization, relocation, repression and a bit of wealth generation to stomp out the rebel streak. In the short-term, local crooked politicians and their allies pocket relocation money, construction money and anything else that isn’t tied down and then appeal to the Provincial and Central governments for more money and more resources to complete the relocation process and to quell any riots that ensue. Its a dirty business and towns like Hanyuan are fighing (and losing) this type of battle all across the nation.
For a glimpse of this town’s character, check out this video clip made by local B-Boys days after the 2008 earthquake ravaged parts of the town: