Week in China: Three Gorges Dam

As China prepares for a new generation of leaders to take power, the BBC is spending a week on the road looking at both the challenges ahead for the world's most populous nation and the advances it has made.

On day five, Martin Patience looks at both the triumph and the human cost of China's massive hydropower project, the Three Gorges Dam.

Day Five: Three Gorges Dam

BBC's Martin Patience: Many were forced to relocate by the project

Rising from the waters of the Yangtze River, the Three Gorges Dam stands more than 40 storeys high. The scale and scope of the project is stunning.

The dam stretches for over 2km (1.25 miles), took tens of thousands of workers over a decade to build and cost more than $40bn (£25bn).

Designed to control the flooding of the mighty river, the dam produces vast amounts of electricity - the equivalent of 11 nuclear power stations.

It is one of the most impressive feats of civil engineering anywhere in the world and stands as a symbol of China's progress over the last 20 years.

Unsurprisingly, the Communist Party has hailed the mega-project as a triumph. But the dam has come at an enormous environmental and human cost.

Water is discharged from the Three Gorges Dam on 24 July 2012 The Three Gorges Dam produces the electricity of 11 nuclear power plants

With a project on this scale and with national pride at stake, Beijing was never going to let anyone stand in the way.

More than a million people were forced to relocate when the dam created a lake 600km in length that submerged villages, towns and small cities.

There was no discussion, no debate, just orders.

New towns and villages sprung up close to the Yangtze when the Three Gorges migrants left their old homes.

China's leadership change

Leadership contenders
  • Special Communist Party meeting every 10 years
  • This time, leaders over age of 68 will be retired
  • New group of seven or nine top leaders unveiled
  • Names already decided in secret, none elected
  • Factions more important than policies, exact selection process unclear

One of those now living in a breeze-block apartment building perched on a hill is farmer Fu Xiancai.

He fully supports China's development and believes that the transformation of the country has benefited the people - but his story reveals the dark side of China's development.

Mr Fu says that he never received the compensation he was due for relocating. When he complained to local officials he says he was beaten viciously, leaving him paralysed.

"If ordinary people can pursue their rights and officials follow the rule of law, then this will become a better country," he said, lying in his bed. He now requires round-the-clock care.

Over the last decade, China has developed at a rate unprecedented in human history.

But the way that millions of people have been pushed aside by the Communist Party for these projects has generate enormous resentment.

People in China are now becoming used to being better off - many Chinese are no longer prepared to be pushed around like they were in the past.

For the country's new leaders that means ruling a population less likely to follow the party line.

Day Four: China's poorest province

Damian Grammaticas speaks to local people in Zhaoxing, Guizhou

On day four, Damian Grammaticas visits Guizhou, the poorest province where many rural residents have missed out on China's new wealth.

Lu Jikuan's bare feet squelch through the mud.

High on a hillside the 70-year-old is bent double, cutting grass along the edge of his rice paddy with a scythe. Mist hangs in the air and a chill wind blows up the valley.

"I've seen rich people, on TV, living in nice houses, driving fancy cars," he says, a grin exposing his missing teeth. "I dream about having that kind of life. But I know it's just a dream."

Lu Jikuan Lu Jikuan says he hopes China's new leaders will make rural people richer

Instead he makes do with a government pension of 55 yuan ($8, £5) a month and what little more he can earn from selling the occasional calf or pig.

The networks of paddies stretch far down the valleys. They are intricate and beautiful, but nobody makes much money here.

Guizhou, where Lu Jikuan lives, is China's poorest province, and this is one of Guizhou's poorest regions.

In the past two decades China's economy has grown by 10% a year and more than 400m people have been lifted out of poverty.

But China's growth has been deeply uneven. Those in the right places with the right connections have been able to become astonishingly rich.

There are now 1.4 million Chinese US dollar millionaires. The number of billionaires has grown from 15 in 2006 to 251 today.

They have captured the greatest spoils of China's growth while many others have been left behind.

About a 150m Chinese still subsist on less than a dollar and a half a day.

Most of them, like Lu Jikuan are stuck in China's villages, far from the opportunities in its giant cities and coastal provinces.

While China's economy has soared, so have its inequalities. The Communist Party had its roots among the rural poor. Its revolution was meant to benefit them.

So today's yawning gap between urban rich and rural poor is an embarrassment for China's rulers.

They even identify it as a threat to the legitimacy of their one-party rule, worried that an unfair society will be an unstable one, and say they will tackle it urgently.

Lu Jikuan has heard that sort of talk before.

"I hope the new generation of Communist leaders can make us all richer," he says. "I think they've been trying to reduce poverty, but I can't say we've really benefited yet."

Then he has to go. He has rice wine to make. It costs him nothing, and drinking a little every day is one of his life's pleasures.

Day Three: Shanghai's building boom

Buildings have soared - but is everybody benefiting?

On day three, the BBC's John Sudworth reports from Shanghai, where the skyline is testament to China's economic boom in the last decade.

If China's leaders could choose one image to symbolise their decade in power, then the Shanghai skyline might do.

The iconic cityscape on the Pudong side of the river was already a work in progress in 2002, but since then it has continued to rise, the gaps filled in with more real estate, more high rise office accommodation, more concrete and steel.

Shanghai's own building boom, just like China's in general, has provided jobs for millions of workers.

And the city's role as a financial hub and engine of growth has pushed per capita income well above US$12,000 (£7,500) a year.

As a face to show to the world Shanghai is modern, vibrant and outward-looking, and for China's economic policy makers, there is much to be proud of here.

But Shanghai is also a symbol of modern China in another important way too.

Map

I recently interviewed an estate agent, standing on one of the upper floors in one of those luxury apartment buildings in Pudong.

The property, with a sweeping view of the river, was on the market for a US$2.5m price tag, and I asked the estate agent if he ever worried about the growing gap between rich and poor.

"I think the gap is obviously getting bigger and bigger," he said, "and some poor people are trying to make something out of it."

"But fortunately," he went on, "we have a very strict and very powerful government who are trying to control everything and calm things down."

That China's leaders are concerned about growing social unrest is well documented and that they are likely to contain it, even as economic growth slows, is for now widely accepted.

But some economists have been wondering whether China's system of strong government may actually be one of the root causes of inequality in the first place.

One of the main engines of this economy's extraordinary growth over the past decade has been massive government spending on big infrastructure projects.

The other engine, of course, has been exports.

But while government spending pumps up GDP, it is also the kind of wealth that is captured by the big state-run companies and the already wealthy elites, rather than ordinary Chinese households.

"China has now come to a critical turning point," said Gary Liu from the China Europe International Business School.

"Big government is becoming the problem, not the solution, because it is too powerful, controls too many resources, creates distortion in the economy and is stifling the innovation of enterprise," he added.

If large numbers of people are shut out of the economy as consumers because they are denied a share of the wealth, the argument goes, then China will struggle to build a more balanced economy in which domestic demand plays a greater role.

And while China prepares to anoint its new generation of leaders, in Shanghai it is not hard to find people who are too poor to consume.

Lou Liping, 51, lives in a tiny one room apartment within sight of the Pudong skyline.

She shares a bathroom and kitchen with her neighbours, and she is waiting for the old, damp building to be torn down in the hope of getting enough compensation to buy a new home.

"I hope they do it soon," she said, "because I'm worried that the price of property is still going up."

Day Two: Extending 'soft power'

The BBC's John Sudworth reports on the lengths Hollywood will go to in order to please China

On day two, the BBC's John Sudworth reports from Shanghai on China's ever-expanding film industry.

Much has been written about China's rising economic and political power.

But China is flexing its cultural muscles too, setting up language institutes in dozens of countries and ramping up the global reach of its state-run news service in a bid to compete with the BBC and CNN.

In its efforts to extend its so called "soft power" there is one area, however, where it really should be doing better than it is, and that's cinema.

The potential is certainly there.

Forget drafty village halls showing worthy propaganda films, China is now the world's fastest-growing cinema market.

The ongoing construction boom saw more than 3,000 new screens open across the country last year.

At around $2bn (£1.2bn), ticket sales may still be only a fifth of America's total box office revenue, but the point is that China's middle class has still got a lot of growing to do.

America's hasn't.

So Hollywood is going to great lengths to get a piece of some of that Chinese revenue, bending over backwards sometimes so as not to cause offence.

Earlier this year when Men in Black 3 was released in China, a scene in which Chinese restaurant workers turn out to be evil alien baddies had been cut.

And when the makers of another big-budget Hollywood movie, the soon to be released Red Dawn, realised a Chinese invasion of America might not look good in China, they reportedly re-mastered the footage to give North Korea a more prominent role in the plot.

And so far, perhaps as a result of such careful wooing, the Hollywood story in China is turning into a full blown romance with a very happy ending.

US films have been gaining ground, even in a market where local productions are protected by a strict quota system that limits foreign film releases.

Under pressure from the World Trade Organisation, that limit has now been raised from 20 films a year to 34, and in the first six months of this year foreign films earned more than $800m in China.

Chinese director Lou Ye in Cannes, 18 May 2012 Lou Ye chose to contend with the censors

Government officials may well be left wondering if the quota for foreign films shouldn't be revised downwards again.

And if Chinese films are being beaten so roundly at the domestic box office, then the picture outside China makes for even more gloomy reading.

A recent report in the English-language China Daily reported that Chinese films took just $400,000 in America in 2011, and of the 791 films made in China that year only 52 were sold abroad, although even then, most of them were co-productions rather than pure Chinese-made films.

But some Chinese directors say the real reason home-grown cinema is struggling is nothing to do with Hollywood, but China itself.

World-renowned director Lou Ye was once banned from making films for five years and recently took the bold step of blogging about his own battle with the censors while trying to get his latest movie Mystery approved for release.

Once a week he posted the details of his negotiations with the Film Bureau.

"A lot of Chinese movie producers and investors will not make movies about the reality of life to avoid the risk of censorship," he told the BBC.

"You will notice there are very few films in the Chinese market about modern Chinese life," he said.

For whatever reason, Chinese audiences are voting with their feet and China is left wondering how to nurture an industry capable of matching America's soft power.

Day One: Shixia village

Martin Patience reports from Shixia Village on the changes it has seen

On day one the BBC's Martin Patience reports from Shixia, a rural village that lies on the Great Wall, to the north of Beijing.

Dong Dexiu's wiry frame and sunken eyes are hints of the hardships he has endured during his life.

But the exuberant 71-year-old, who sports a mischievous grin, says that the village of Shixia has been transformed in the last decade.

"I feel my life now is like living in heaven," he says, standing in his traditional courtyard.

Dozens of yellow corn-cobs are drying from the branches of tree and there are enormous baskets filled with sorghum and red beans lying on the ground.

"In the past, we often went hungry," he says, holding a cigarette. "But while I'm not wealthy, I now have more than enough."

Mr Dong has experienced the turmoil of recent Chinese history.

He was born during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. He says one of his uncles was beaten to death by Japanese soldiers in his village.

His father then died during the Great Famine, which killed tens of million across China, over 50 years ago.

Dong Dexiu Dong Dexiu says he is making more money than ever before

And if that was not enough, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution then followed.

It was in the early 1980s that Mr Dong says he first saw the seeds of change, when farmers in the village were allowed to sell their own vegetables for cash.

Since then, he says, his life has only got better, particularly in the last 10 years.

The roads in the village were repaired and the authorities renovated many of the old homes.

Now he gets a government pension and also receives a salary for working as a fire-guard in the nearby forest.

All told, he makes about $250 (£155) a month - more money than he has ever had.

"The wheel of history won't turn back," he declares, explaining China's progress over the last few decades.

Dong Dexiu's sense of optimism is shared by many Chinese in the small villages, bustling towns and mega-cities across the country.

Lives have been transformed here and many believe that China - despite all the problems it faces - is a country on the right track.

The challenge for China's new leaders will be meeting the growing expectations.

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