Poverty Alleviation: China's Anti-Poverty Drive in Sichuan Sparks Fears of Cultural Erosion (Part III)

Poverty Alleviation: China's Anti-Poverty Drive in Sichuan Sparks Fears of Cultural Erosion (Part III)
Photo: RFA

China declared in late November that it had officially met the target of eliminating extreme poverty by 2020, one of Communist Party chief Xi Jinping’s signature initiatives to reach the CCP's goal to build a "moderately prosperous society" before the party’s 100th anniversary in 2021. In a three-party series, Rita Cheng of RFA's Mandarin Service examines the impact of poverty alleviation policies on ethnic minorities.

The Yi ethnic group of southwestern China's Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, who made global headlines in 2016 when photos of children scaling an 800-meter cliff-face to get to primary school went viral, have been lifted out of their "poverty-stricken" status, according to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The Nov. 17 announcement that seven of the poorest counties in Liangshan were no longer considered poverty stricken came as the government announced that there would be an end to "absolute poverty" nationwide by the end of 2020.

Absolute poverty in China is defined as the level below which people's income and food production aren't able to meet subsistence needs for food, shelter and clothing.

But as China's nationwide poverty allevation campaign has been linked to forced labor, political "re-education" camps in Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as the mass relocation of traditional communities to take up low-status industrial jobs in cities, so the program has sparked concerns among the Yi about the erosion of their communities and their traditional way of life.

China relocated over 9.6 million people to complete its poverty alleviation relocation plan during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) period, according to Zhao Chenxin, secretary-general of the National Development and Reform Commission.

"9.6 million poor people have all moved to new homes, of which more than five million have been resettled in urban areas and about 4.6 million have been resettled in rural areas," Zhao told a Dec. 3 news conference in Beijing.

"The employability of poor people has been significantly improved after their relocation. Relocated families with labor have achieved the employment goal of at least one person, and the income of the relocated people has been significantly improved," he said.

Meigu County in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture.
Meigu County in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture.
End of isolation

Hou Yuangao, deputy director of the Western Development Center of Beijing's Minzu University, said the fact that many Yi people live in remote mountainous areas without good roads -- the main reason for the schoolchildren's hair-raising cliff climb -- has meant that the traditional Yi way of life, language and culture had remained relatively untouched until recently.

"Yi culture is very well preserved in Liangshan, or used to be, because the area was so closed off," Hou told RFA in a recent interview. "Economic development was hard, and pretty stagnant, but our cultural preservation was total."

"Now, there are fears that our culture is being lost too quickly, now that communications are improving all the time, and more and more roads are being built," he said. "Better roads mean that our isolation has now been broken, and with it the environment in which our culture endured."

"We are very anxious and worried about this," Hou said.

Jan Karlach, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University, said China's poverty alleviation program is largely calculated in terms of per capita income, and isn't geared towards solving complex local issues, which for the Yi have included an HIV-AIDS epidemic linked to shared needles among injecting drug users and a generation of orphans whose parents died of the disease.

"If the people charged with implementing the poverty alleviation program are locals, then they have higher emotional intelligence, and understand local needs," he said. "But when outsiders are sent to [places like] Liangshan, all they care about is getting to their targets within a certain period of time, and they don't have time to care about the local situation."

"It's much harder for people to communicate with officials like that."

The traditional earthen house of the Yi people with a firepit that serves as a kitchen and a meeting place.
The traditional earthen house of the Yi people with a firepit that serves as a kitchen and a meeting place.
Fear of a uniform, monocultural China

Hou Yuangao said he is concerned that Yi culture could be lost in the rush to ensure "economic development."

"Liangshan may be the poorest place in China, but it's also the most vibrant," Hou said. "That vitality comes directly out of the Yi people's struggle to create and transform their own culture, and to build their own version of modernity that is specific to their culture."

"We don't want to wind up exactly like all the other villages [in China]," he said.

The CCP's anti-poverty drive has brought with it the fear of a uniform, monocultural China aligned with the priorities of the majority Han Chinese.

"We don’t want to be assimilated," Hou said. "We want a way to modernize that preserves the dignity and value of our cultural traditions."

He said that while younger Yi may probably need to leave Liangshan to seek personal and economic development, they should perhaps also consider returning to inspire and invest in their communities later in life, mimicking his own return to the region in 2005.

"We are encouraging young people to leave, to attend school, to find jobs, or to serve in the military, which is great, but that should be so that they come back and build better communities," Hou said. "There doesn't have to be a contradiction."

He cites the traditional firepit hearth that is at the center of Yi domestic life.

"It is true that firepits have some health and safety issues, and need to be improved, but we have also made some attempts to build [more modern] firepits and kitchens," he said.

Symbolic firepits

Traditional Yi dwellings in Liangshan are made of packed earth, with no indoor sanitation.

"So we build toilets into them, still keeping the firepit, but with a modern kitchen," Hou said, adding that the firepits do a better job of heating homes in winter in a region where there is no access to central heating.

Karlach said the Yi are still building new homes that incorporate their traditional way of life.

"The Yi are pretty resilient, and they don't cling rigidly to things, but neither are they going to build a new house that doesn't include their traditions," he said. "For younger people, the firepit is more of a symbolic thing than a material need."

However, there are some aspects of government intervention in the region that don't strengthen local culture, Karlach said.

"[Some people] don't send their kids to Yi-medium schools because the standard of teaching is too low, so they go to the [Chinese-medium] schools in the county where the education is better," he said.

"But this means that ... the kids' Chinese is excellent, but their command of the Yi language isn't so good."

Overall, Karlach said there has been relatively little resistance so far in Liangshan to the CCP's anti-poverty measures.

"Most of the Yi in Liangshan ... are just hoping that some of the central government policies can be adapted to better suit the local situation," he said. "Overall, they are in pretty good shape compared with ethnic minority groups ... in Xinjiang and Tibet."

Reported by Rita Cheng and Xue Xiaoshan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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