They call them ecological migrants. They are 2 million villagers from Guizhou province whose mountainous environs have been deemed unsuitable for sustaining human life by the Chinese government. So they’re being offered incentives to pack up and ship out to new regional cities and districts that have been built just to receive them. “Assisted relocation” is what they call it.
This 2 million person relocation initiative surpasses that of even the Three Gorges Dam, in which 1.27 million people were moved away from the Yangtze River. Though the largest relocation project in China began in Shaanxi province last year, where nearly 3 million people are also being transferred out of impoverished areas.
The rapidly growing divide between the rich and the poor in China is sending a ripple through the society. Though everything appears stable on the surface there is an undercurrent of paranoia that this won’t last for long if China’s truly ginormous poor population is not brought within relative range of the country’s runaway rich and middle classes. According to a 2008 World Bank report, nearly 400 million Chinese live on under $2 per day while others are driving around in million dollar cars.
Guizhou is China’s poorest province, with a per capita GDP of 13,000 yuan in 2010 — which is 40 percent the national average and 17 percent of the people in Shanghai.
The province’s landscape doesn’t do its residents any favors either, as more than 30,000 sq km of its 170,000 total sq km is classified as “rocky desert terrain.” Over 90% of Guizhou total area is mountainous, and is prone to frequent bouts of natural disasters, including landslides and floods.
In the New China, if the land doesn’t provide the people will be moved off the land.
In theory anyway.
The governor of Guizhou justified this project by saying that, “even if we build roads to reach them, provide drinking water to them and work to alleviate poverty there for another 50 years, the problem still might not be addressed . . .”
In the words Ma Qingxin, a local party chief: “Relocation is one effective way of poverty alleviation.”
As is typical of China at this juncture, even poverty relief has become a major infrastructural project. Over the next 20 years the Guizhou government will spend 18 billion RMB to sweep 2 million people out of remote mountain villages, and turn them into town dwellers and factory workers by transplanting them in 181 resettlement communities built just for them.
This plan has been flaunted as Guizhou’s “final offensive” against poverty.
Unlike many other developing countries, where rural poor migrating to the cities are treated as a scourge, China encourages and even orchestrates urban migration. Simply put, they need people to fill their new cities, to work in the factories, to turn into consumers:
Li Keqiang is banking on more than 260 million migrant workers and their families becoming permanent urban residents to boost consumption and sustain growth at his bottom line of 7 percent a year
I saw the twin phalanx of newly built rose colored apartments shooting straight down a slight decline to a small town that sat at the apex of a valley. I knew that this was the place: Ethnic Customs Street. I paid off the motorcycle taxi that gave me a lift from the city of Songtao an hour away. Not many buses come this way yet.
I’ve seen photos of this place gracing the webpages of the Chinese and international media. They are generally partnered with headlines such as “Two million to be moved in one of the largest relocations in Chinese history.” This is Yajia, one of the communities that’s being developed to absorb “ecological migrants” from the remote mountain villages which have been officially classified as unsuited for human habitation.
Yajia is a small town in Songtao Miao autonomous prefecture that sits at the northern tip of Guizhou province that shoots up between Chongqing municipality and Hunan province like a peninsula of sorts. This is a golden triangle type of place, sitting at the juncture of three major political divisions along a major east to west expressway.
The Telegraph sold this place to be some sort of urban epicenter, but it’s not. As of now, there is pretty much nothing here but mountains and a run down little town that’s just now starting to peak over the edge of insignificance.
Apparently, this lack of attention was conspicuous, and this area is now being viewed as some kind of lost geo-political goldmine. Like so, there is a major initiative underway to develop this provincial three-way into some kind of new urban epicenter.
I walked down Ethnic Customs Street, which is an area that was built specially to accommodate the relocated migrants. I was looking for someone to talk with about this project and the migration, but I ended up walking right through the entire area and into the center of town.
There just wasn’t much happening in the district built for the relocated, and hardly a man, mouse, or cow stirred on the entire street — which was at least a kilometer long and had 100s of new housing units. Though it has been being built for the past seven years, half of Ethnic Customs Street was a dirt road. Most of the houses had not even built yet and the majority of the ones that had were skeletons of habitations — lacking interior walls, windows, and just about everything else that makes a home. Most of the activity I did observe on this street was from Han Chinese merchants from Chongqing who had moved in to places which were supposed to have been reserved for “ecological migrants.”
“Have you been relocated?” I gingerly asked a woman in the town center selling tobacco. I was unsure if she would have any idea what I was talking about, but this insecurity faded when she replied with a big laugh:
“No, I’m from here. The people who were relocated are over there.”
She pointed back towards Ethnic Customs Street.
I continued walking through Yajia. This is Miao country, and the place was full of people wearing somewhat traditional clothes, conical sedge hats, smoking tobacco out of handmade reed pipes, and selling all types of local wares — baskets, brooms, cigarettes, bracelets, herbal medicine — and engaging in various old time practices — such as healing ceremonies and “king fu monks” blessing jewelry before selling it. The market was rocking, people were sitting in the streets everywhere — talking, getting their hair cut, smoking, selling and buying all things imaginable.
From what I could tell, Yajia was nothing other than a vibrant old market town out in the Wuling mountains.
But this is to change.
That rose colored gauntlet of houses leading into Yajia started being built in 2006, and there is another large, equally scarcely inhabited housing development on the other side of town. This place is proposed to be stocked with people soon — whether they come from remote Miao villagers or Han from neighboring cities.
According to the Chinese media, the first batch of “ecological migrants” moved into Yajia in 2008. In 2011, another wave arrived. In all, 80 households were reported to have been successfully relocated.
Each of these families were put into a two bedroom, 80 to 120 square meter house. While the government subsidized these houses, they did not give them away for free. Each family was allocated 12,000 yuan to put towards the cost of the house, but the bulk of the payments fell to the migrants. It has been reported that each family had to pay between 40 to 50 thousand yuan ($6,000 – $8,000) for their houses. This is usually more money that the villagers had on hand, so most had to take out loans from banks.
An example of the situation many of these migrants found themselves in after taking out these loans was shown by the China Daily:
Xiang Gongbin, 59, said his family used 50,000 yuan from bank loans and moved in 2008. The loans are not paid yet, for lack of savings. The household managed to pay about 5,000 yuan a year, covering only the interest.
Xiang and his wife used to find manual work at construction sites near home to support the family. After moving to the new house, they stopped working to look after two grandsons, both 4 years old. Their livelihood depends on money sent from their two sons, who work in other cities.
“The interest paid to the bank in these years has already amounted to a big sum. I know the longer we delay paying off the loans, the more money we will end up giving to the bank. But we have little savings, and the family needs money to keep running,” Xiang said.
Xiang said he hopes a more favorable policy will lower bank interest rates to help struggling villagers.
The biggest advantage is the closeness of schools, which his two grandsons will soon attend. Some of the homeowners have started businesses such as grocery stores, restaurants and wood processing mills. A few rent out their houses and receive 3,000 to 4,000 yuan a year.
As far as work and livelihoods are concerned, most of the migrants will have to virtually start over. They are peasants living a traditional life in the mountains, but if they move they give up their land and must find other work. It has been reported that there are government support programs in place, and senior citizens will receive welfare, the middle aged will be provided with jobs backed by the government, and two new industrial parks are being built for those in their working prime:
One park intends to attract high-tech and environment-friendly companies. The other park includes labor-intensive factories that make garments, shoes and chemicals. One shoe manufacturer that has already started production can create 20,000 jobs.
Basically, peasants from rural mountain villages will be transformed into factory workers and public works employees.
As of now, the villagers are not being forced to take the government’s relocation offer, but eventually they will all have to go. The majority of the villagers in the Songtao area have not yet taken the incentives and continue living in their traditional villages. Tradition is hard to break, even with the lures of modernity: education, work, more money, and what goes down in the World Bank reports as a higher standard of living. This is perhaps especially true when breaking tradition here means going 50,000 in debt.
“The plan is not to move everyone out of the mountainous villages and all live an urban life,” said the deputy chief of a similar relocation project in nearby Yuping Dong. “It is up to individual families to decide whether they want government subsidies and to live in a better house, or to continue to make a living by growing on more land.”
With no apparent regard for the irony, the China Daily merrily stating that those villagers who are too poor to relocate, “can rent farming land left by those who have moved and increase their income by tilling more land.”
In the same article it was added that:
Credible agricultural companies will be allowed to rent idled land from villages. For those who choose to stay, they can do the same or work for these large companies.
Which begs the criticism that this plan may just be a way to clear the land for natural resource extraction or other large scale economic initiatives.
100,000 of the proposed 2 million migrants in Guizhou have been reported to already have successfully relocated.
While it is true that the people living deep in Guizhou’s Wuling mountains do not make much money, it’s also true that they don’t spend much either. Many of these communities are virtually self-sustaining — some don’t even have roads going to them — as they dangle off caboose end of this runaway train called China.
Though by this same token, the people out in the mountain villages of Guizhou know how to live there. Though their financial standards of living pale when compared to the much of the country, they still have the traditional skills and knowledge to survive in that landscape — regardless of what the government has claimed. This is evident in the streets of Yajia, where examples of local, self-sufficient trades — basket weaving, hat/ shoe making, cotton refining, medicine — are everywhere.
These are people who could live in these mountains on their own forever. But these traditions, the knowledge, the skills that allows extremely rural, mountain people to continue living in such remote landscapes predominately utilizing local resources are lost immediately upon moving to a city. Thousands of years of tradition and cultural evolution all too often disappear after a single generation of urban living. Culture is a chain, with just one missing link it breaks. There is no going back.