Several weeks ago the China Environment News (CEN) ran a story about the human impacts of a dam built on the on the Lancang River in Manwan, Yunnan province in 1986. The article claims that in contrast to the promises of the dam developers, the Yunnan Huaneng Lancang River Hydropower Development Co., Ltd., that living standards would improve after dam construction, many residents, particularly those relocated as part of the project, actually fell in status from “peasant” to “unemployed.” Some have even lapsed into poverty including, the CEN reporter says, the family pictured below:
In a poignant vignette the reporter describes how this family lives in a house with a linoleum roof, and how the mother must work year round in Shenzhen just to provide them with the bare necessities of life. The mother happened to have returned home for a visit on the day the reporter arrived, and the family asked the photographer to take this “family portrait.” The father in the picture was 19 years old when the construction of the dam was in full swing and excited about the prospects of a better future. But now, 20 years later, even though neither he nor his wife mind doing dirty and odd jobs, providing enough food and clothing for his family has become a problem.
The CEN article prompted a sharp rebuttal from someone whose affiliation is not clear, but is obviously connected in some way with the pro-dam movement. He contends that CEN got the facts all wrong, and was obviously bent on slandering hydropower construction in China. Incomes went up in the area after the construction of the dam, but some people’s incomes may not have gone up as fast as others leading to resentments, and what’s more there are a lot of minority groups in the area (and we all know what that means). He suggests that the CEN reporter was too gullible and had been hoodwinked by local malcontents. In fact, he says relocated families made out so well they incited the envy of those whose land had not been taken.
Who really knows what’s going on in Manwan, but I think it is very encouraging to see this kind of back and forth about an important social issue in a Chinese newspaper.
I want to leave you with one question: would the pictured family strike Chinese viewers as an impoverished one? The pro-dam writer claims they are not. He says they receive at least the minimum living allowance in the area, plus a 600 yuan per year resettlement subsidy. He says they are better off than many residents, and offers his opinion that it doesn’t look like they have any problems paying for nice clothes for the children.
I’m not really interested in whether they are “poor” under an economic definition, but rather, would they look like a “poor” family to readers of CEN? Reading this picture from a US perspective, I would say they were poor because of the chicken. In the iconography of American photojournalism, a free-ranging chicken signals poverty. The ramshackle house doesn’t convey a sense of prosperity, but I just don’t know how this scene registers with Chinese viewers. Any thoughts?