Three Rules for Foreign Tourists at Three Gorge Dam

(The Mac Weekly)  An afternoon in a Chinese cop shop: Wang and Von Geldern recount story of arrest.  By Angela Whited.  November 3, 2006.

Just a week before China’s Three Gorges Dam became operational on June 6, Seminar Coordinator Mike Monahan and International Studies Dean Ahmed Samatar received a phone call in Shanghai from Professors Jim Von Geldern and Wang Ping:  “We’re being arrested. Don’t worry. We’ll check in every half hour.  If we don’t, something’s wrong.”

Rumors of human rights violations in the relocation process of about one million people necessary for the completion of the dam project had brought the Macalester professors to the Three Gorges area of China. Wang, an English professor, and Von Geldern, a Russian professor, were speaking to one man, already three days past his eviction date, who refused to leave the house his grandfather built, when they drew a small crowd of unhappy people.

Wang’s ongoing research project deals with the changing face of the Chinese countryside and the farmers who live there. She has told and continues to tell their stories through her writing and photographs. Naturally, she took pictures of the villagers that day.  “It was probably the photos that got us in trouble,” Von Geldern said.

Finishing their business around 1 p.m., the professors climbed into their rented car and started the slow trek up the side of the valley. They were almost out when the police cruiser roared past and cut them off. “Our driver, for some reason, in this little putt-putt car, was trying to outrun them,” Von Geldern said.

“I knew immediately they were going to take my camera,” Wang said.  Unwilling to forfeit so significant a portion of her research on the trip, Wang and Von Geldern switched the memory card in the camera to a blank one while driving to the police station.

“Both of us have spent a lot of time in socialist countries and have been arrested times before,” Von Geldern said. “Ping knew exactly what we needed to do.”  “I hid my notebook and memory cards under the taxi driver’s seat,” Wang said. “When we got out I took a few shots at random. The cop made me erase the card.”

Wang said she thought the policeman who arrested them was just following orders. “At the beginning he was very serious, but he lightened up after a while,” she said.  “He said we were being arrested for violating the law that forbade us from talking to migrants,” Von Geldern said. “I asked what that law was, and he didn’t know.”

Since Von Geldern was a foreigner—Wang is a Chinese national—they had to wait for the customs officials to arrive before proceedings could begin. The afternoon dragged on and the professors were growing tired and hadn’t eaten.  “Jim’s hand was shaking and trembling,” Wang said. “I think the cop was worried something bad would happen [to Jim] and he would get in trouble.”  “The guy goes out and orders noodles and serves us tea while we wait,” Von Geldern said.

Needing to pass the time, Wang made conversation with the policeman.  “Ping’s a very gifted interviewer,” Von Geldern said. “She so completely charmed this policeman, I don’t think he knew what was going on.”  She learned that the arresting officer had grown up on the Russian border with his parents who were from the Three Gorges area. He’d moved back to the area to become a cop when his parents retired.  “He [the policeman] knew some Russian poems and started reciting,” Wang said.

When the customs officials arrived, however, the policeman stopped chatting and became all business, Wang said.

According to Wang and Von Geldern, the officials attempted to make them confess to a crime they had not committed while the professors insisted they were only tourists. They spent most of their time negotiating about words.  “One of them put together protocol of an interrogation that never took place to exonerate us,” Von Geldern said. “He wrote it out, we signed it, and they let us go. The whole thing took two to three hours.”

And the statement they signed?

“We are tourists. We promise to remain tourists and ask no questions.”

(ObserveChina)  Foreign Tourists Must Observe Three Rules While Traveling in Three Gorge.  By Wang Weiluo (王维洛).  November 23, 2006.

[in translation]

I remember Mr. Yu Qiuyu once wrote an essay in which he recommended that the most worthwhile place for foreign tourists to see in China is Three Gorges.

Ever since the Chinese government approved the Three Gorge Dam construction project, the travel agencies in China began to promote the "Farewell to Three Gorge tour" all over the world.  The number of foreign tourists visiting the Three Gorge area increased to new historical heights.

But ever since the Three Gorge Reservoir began to store water since June 2003, tourism has gone down even as the water level in the reservoir has gone up.  The newly ordered luxury cruise boats are parked at the docks due to lack of tourists.  Many upscale luxury hotels are idle and many Three Gorge travel agencies in Chongqing city have gone out of business.

In order to reverse the downturn in Three Gorge Dam tourism, the Chinese travel industry has offered many attractively priced Three Gorge tours on the international market.  Due to the good prices, some foreign tourists have come.

But for foreign travel agencies, there is the important issue of traveler safety that is more than just about prices.  A while ago, the cruise ship Galaxy 2 carrying 85 German and Swiss tourists went aground on the way from Yichang to Chongqing.  The cruise ship hit a reef and began to take in water.  Although all the tourists were safe, the incident generated bad publicity.

In addition, foreign tourists have to be reminded about the special laws in the Three Gorge Dam area -- they have to observe the three regulations.

If foreign reporters want to enter the Three Gorge Dam area, they must first obtain special permission from the Hubei provincial or Chongqing municipal government foreign affairs departments.  The purpose is to prevent foreign reporters from interviewing migrants from the Three Gorge Dam area "privately" without the permission of the Chinese national, Hubei provincial and Chongqing municipal governments and without the escort of government officials.

But when foreign tourists go to the Three Gorge Dam area, they do not need special permission from the Hubei provincial or Chongqing municipal government foreign affair departments.  In a sense, they were attracted to come here because China gave them an attractive offer.  But when one goes to tour a place, the scenery is only part of the trip.  More important is the understanding of the people, their customs and culture.  This means coming into contact with the local residents and asking them about their lives.  For western tourists, the relocation of the migrants displaced by the Three Gorge Dam project is an interesting subject.  In their minds, they already know about the relocation problems for the migrants displaced at places such as Egypt's Aswan Dam.  They really want to know how the Chinese government relocated so many residents while improving their living conditions.

But the Chinese national, Hubei provincial and Chongqing municipal government only want these foreign tourists to come to Three Gorge and leave their money behind for this smokeless industrial development.  They do not want the foreign tourists to get involved in matters "unrelated to tourism," such as understanding the issues about the relocation of people.  They want the foreign tourists to observe the "three regulations" carefully -- don't talk to migrants displaced by the project, don't talk about any issues related to relocation and don't take any photographs related to the relocation.  But it is difficult to make the "free and undisciplined" foreign tourists observe the regulations, and this is therefore causing problems for the travel agencies.

A short while ago, two professors at Macalester College (Minnesota, USA) Jim von Geldern and Wang Ping traveled to Three Gorge and they conversed with migrants displaced by the dam project.  They also took some photographs.  As a result, they were detained by the local public security bureau.  They were told that they had violated the law forbidding conversation with relocated migrants and that was why they were detained.  The two American professors were forced to wipe out the photographs on the memory cards in their cameras.  The public security bureau staff interrogated them and made them sign a statement.  Then the two were released.

Jim von Geldern and Wang Ping wrote in the statement: "We are tourists.  We promise to remain tourists and ask no questions."

On November 3, 2006, the MacWeekly published at Macalester College published an article titled "An afternoon in a Chinese cop shop: Wang and von Geldern recount story of arrest."  The article recounted the experience of the two teachers while under detention.

The Chinese government showcased the Three Gorge project as one that demonstrates the "superiority of socialism."  An important research topic at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is the relationship between the Three Gorge Dam residents and human rights in China.

"We are tourists.  We promise to remain tourists and ask no questions."  These two short sentences constitute the biggest satire about the Three Gorge Dam that is supposed to showcase the superiority of socialism as well as the situation of human rights in China.

Tourists tour because they have curiosity.  Without this sort of curiosity, there is no motive to go on a tour.  When tour guides finish the description of a place, they usually ask: "Do you have any questions?"  How can a tourist be a proper tourist without asking questions?

What is human rights?  The right to speak and ask questions should be the most basic human right!  Can a country in which questions are now allowed possibly be called a country with human rights guaranteed by democratic rule of law?  I wish that the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences would include in their Three Gorge migrant/human rights research an analysis about how the law "forbidding foreigners from talking to Three Gorge migrants" is an example of human rights with unique Chinese characteristics.  After the research report is completed, the two American professors should be invited to provide the concluding opinion.

When the Three Gorge Dam began to take over control of the water flow in the Changjiang river on November 8, 1997, Jiang Zemin told the whole world: "From ancient times, the Chinese people have engaged in grand projects to conquer, develop and utilize nature.  The stories of Jingwei filling the sea with pebbles, Yugong leveling the mountain and Dayu stopping the floods by regulating the flow of water illustrate how the ancient Chinese believed in the ability of humans to fight and win against nature.  Water control projects such as Dujiangyan and the Sui-dynasty canal were constructed more than 2,000 years ago and had great impact on economic and social development in that era.  Today, we are building a water and electricity engineering project that is the world's largest in terms of size and total combined benefits.  This will have a tremendous stimulating effect on the economic development of our people.  This is a project that will benefit us and our descendants for ages.  It shows the enterprise spirit of the Chinese people and their great desire to continuously improve their lot.  It shows the magnificent will to change our world during the reform process."  Jiang Zemin emphasized that the Three Gorge project once again showed the superiority of socialism in being able to amass the forces necessary for grand projects.

In the case of Three Gorge, the superiority of socialism is being shown in the ability to relocate more than 1 million people to make way for the dam.  In a capitalist society, this is indeed impossible.  Someone has calculated that 1.13 million persons were displaced for the Three Gorge dam.  This number is larger than the population in many European countries.  You must agree that this is a major achievement.  Apart from China, what other country in the world would dare to undertake such a project?

But something that a capitalist society cannot do and only a socialist system can do is not necessarily a good thing.  That such a dam is not possible under the capitalist system shows that there are reasons for not being able to do so, and not because the system is either capitalist or socialist.  In the letter from Huang Wanli to Jiang Zemin, none of the reasons why Three Gorge Dam should not be built is connected to the socialist system.

If the Three Gorge Dam is the world largest water and electricity project with the most impact and it shows the superiority of socialism, people should be able to look at it, talk about it and ask questions.  As the common saying goes, you can tell whether it is a horse or a mule by displaying it.  So why is the Chinese government so afraid of letting foreigners come into contact with the Three Gorge migrants?  Why were foreign tourists who spoke to Three Gorge migrants arrested?  Unless these foreigners have direct contact with the Three Gorge migrants, how can they see the vast superiority of socialism?