Involuntary resettlement in China: a model of good practice?

The World Bank has been lavish in its praise of Chinese resettlement policies,(1) citing procedures for the involuntary resettlement of people affected by large development projects as a potential model for other developing countries. However, good policy does not necessarily transpose into good practice and evidence is needed to support claims of successful resettlement. A review of the existing literature and our own fieldwork indicate that there is little independent evidence to support such a claim. In China, as elsewhere, the a priori assumption that development-induced displacement will lead to a deterioration in people's conditions of life (an assumption supported by studies of the kind reviewed in FMR12) can only be disproved if there is reliable data. In China, such reliable data are hard to find.

Lack of independence

Few independent socio-economic studies at the grassroots level of development displacement and resettlement have been undertaken in China. Most accounts of resettlement outcomes in China come from World Bank reports or the Chinese Government. However, the Bank's studies have generally not been conducted by independent agencies, but by institutions with close links to Chinese Government agencies that are involved in the dam building(2). After searching for such literature in Beijing, Hong Kong and Melbourne libraries, we found only eighteen independent publications concerned with involuntary resettlement. Whilst all the papers cited specific examples of involuntary resettlement, only five of the eighteen showed evidence of primary data collection and of these only one described its methods. Hence, it seems there is a lack of independent data to back the claims made by the World Bank that Chinese resettlement is a 'model.'

Even when independent researchers enter the field to collect their own data on resettlement, the fieldwork environment makes the collection of independent data difficult. Professor Cao of the Shanghai Social Development Research Institute found that in Henan, "Local officials don't want outsiders, be they journalists or high ranking officials, talking to local people."(3) Cao remarks that Chinese villages are kept closed by local officials. If researchers do manage to gain entry to a site they are often accompanied by officials; but many Chinese villagers will not talk openly with a cadre present. Hence, interviewees often go into 'public meeting mode' in which answers reflect the party line. With independent access to resettlement study sites so limited, there is doubt about the capacity of social research to identify accurately the outcomes of resettlement.

Statistical reporting

The World Bank has rated the accuracy of household surveys in Chinese resettlement projects as far above that normally found in the Third World. However, false reporting of statistics amongst government officials in China is common, as the village deceives the township, the township deceives the county, in deception upon deception when a report moves up the government hierarchy - a process in which officials create figures and figures make official careers. According to Liaowang Weekly 18, a State Statistical Bureau survey found 60 000 instances of illegal actions in producing statistics.

McDonald's attempt to collect independent data in rural Henan indicates that it is probable that officials have provided false statistics during the monitoring of the Xiaolangdi resettlement. She undertook a socio-economic survey of two resettlement villages in Henan province. The accuracy of data collection was hampered by a village official insisting on distributing the questionnaires himself. Later, a resettlement official from the County Resettlement Office was found to be completing the questionnaires himself. (After objections, the official did agree to distribute the questionnaires throughout the village.) Many completed questionnaires were altered before being returned, alterations that were made in the same pen and the same writing. (4)

Unsure of the implications of the altered results, McDonald created two data sets to assess the outcomes of resettlement. In one village, the alterations made no difference to the aggregate response about area farmed, income and grain production. In the other village, the villagers' apparent responses indicated a deterioration in the quality of their lives, as assessed by these variables, whereas the official responses indicated that the quality of their lives had improved. T-tests confirmed the significance of the differences in the official and village responses.

The system of statistical reporting is responsible for many falsified statistics. The government has a hierarchy of officials extending from the central government level to the provincial, township and village levels. Objectives are set at one level of the hierarchy and then made the responsibility of lower levels. However, the same levels of government are responsible for statistical reporting, up the hierarchy. Such coincidence of objectives and data collection creates a difficult environment in which to gather accurate data.

Problems in past resettlements

One of the major reasons for the 'success' of Chinese resettlement according to the World Bank is that China has developed sophisticated, binding policies and procedures for each of the sectors involved in resettlement. However, a reasonable policy does not necessarily mean good resettlement practice. Recent resettlement projects executed under the national policy (such as the Three Gorges Project) have had well-documented shortcomings - not the type of 'model' that other countries should emulate. (5)

It is well known that the resettlement at the Three Gorge Dam is marred with problems, the impacts of which are felt by the two million people to be relocated. Problems include human rights violations, official cover-ups of inadequacies and failures, falsification of figures, endemic corruption, misuse of resettlement funds, discrimination against rural resettlers, and lack of proper efforts to inform or consult with resettlers. Human rights are being violated, inadequacies covered up, figures falsified and resettlement funds misused by corrupt officials. Earlier this year two farmers who helped organise petitions against corruption were reported missing. (6)

McDonald's (2000) study of the Xiaolangdi resettlement also uncovered flaws that further contradict the claim that China could be a resettlement model. The resettlement has had largely negative effects. Displaced households have lost family tombs, suffered from food insecurity, had to put up with unhealthy water quality, received less farming land than they used to have and seen their incomes decline. They have been inadequately compensated for their losses. Only one of the World Bank's criteria of a model resettlement was met at both villages.


Both the Chinese government and the World Bank have strict policies about procedures that should be followed to plan resettlement and about the criteria that should be met. However, good policies do not of themselves ensure good implementation. Therefore, good data are required in order to evaluate the effects of resettlement. In China, the data with which resettlements have been evaluated generally leave much to be desired. As elsewhere, resettlement seems commonly to be a cost against a project not a net benefit.


Brooke McDonald is completing a PhD at the School of Anthropology, Geography and Environmental Studies (SAGES), University of Melbourne. Email: Michael Webber is Professor of Geography, University of Melbourne. Email:


  1. "Resettlement in China is now generally considered to work well and even adds to project benefits, while resettlement elsewhere has been problematic and a source of friction" (Resettlement and Development: The Bankwide Review of Projects Involving Involuntary Resettlement 1986-1993, World Bank Environment Department, Washington, 1994a: 4/16).
  2. S Woodman Comments on World Commission on Dams' China Country Review Paper (May 2000). See
  3. J Cao 'China Along the Yellow River - A Scholar's Observations and Meditations on Chinese Rural Society - Reading Notes for Book One' Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, September 2000.
  4. B McDonald Global policy - local implications: a study of the Xiaolangdi resettlement, China, BSc Honours thesis, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2000.
  5. On which, see S Steil and Y Duan 'Policies and practice in Three Gorges resettlement: a field account', Forced Migration Review 12: pp10-13, 2002.
  6. J Becker 'Three Gorges Petitioners held by police', South China Morning Post, 21 March 2001. See


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