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It’s the Dragon Boat Festival in early summer and Xiang Yang and his wife are sitting outside their house in Ma’an village, playing with their grandson. In front of them is a steep, bare slope, all that remains of most of the village’s rice fields, which collapsed into the valley 20 years ago. Landslides happen frequently in the region — one last year killed six people — but Xiang has declined a government offer to relocate to the city.

“City people have to pay for water, for vegetables, for electricity, even for using the toilet, but a countryside man like me doesn’t need to pay for any of these,” says Xiang, 47, pointing out that it may be hard to find a job at the relocation center. “Whether you’re a villager or a city dweller, you have to travel far away to work as a migrant worker anyway, so what’s the point?”

Xiang’s reluctance to move from one of the hundreds of counties in China that the government says are imperiled by natural disasters, extreme weather or climate change shows the challenge Beijing faces in carrying out the world’s largest state relocation program. Officially called “ecological migration,” it’s designed to depopulate areas for reasons ranging from the cost of providing infrastructure to remote places, to soil degradation from over-farming, or even making way for a new dam (the 1.3 million people evacuated for the Three Gorges Dam’s reservoir were also “ecological migrants.”) But increasingly, it’s residents of towns and villages in the north and west who are feeling the brunt of drought, global warming and desertification, that are being asked to move.

Few governments outside China have the capability to enforce such mass migrations, putting the world’s most populous nation in the vanguard of a global shift as temperatures rise, populations increase and water and food resources become scarcer. The mixed results from China’s experience are a lesson to other countries about the pitfalls in creating new towns for those who are displaced.

“Resettlement doesn’t always have great outcomes for people in terms of their economic fortunes, which have been very tied to their land,” said Sam Geall, acting chief executive officer of China Dialogue and associate fellow at Chatham House who focuses on climate policy. “They often end up in the informal economy after a breakdown of traditional community structures.”

Xiang’s village is in Guizhou, the province with China’s biggest ecological migration program, which set a target to move 2 million people between 2012 and 2020. It’s one of the nation’s poorest areas, where tens of millions lived in mountainous areas with little arable land. Most of the terrain is Karst, a thin layer of soil covering limestone bedrock that is hollowed out by subterranean streams, creating sinkholes and caves. The geology, deforestation and climate change combined to turn as much as 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of the province into a rocky desert. Last year, Guizhou suffered its worst floods in 60 years and 54 people died or went missing due to natural hazards.

“I couldn’t find any flat land where the soil is thick and fertile,” said 43-year-old Yu Fei, who used to live in a village in Changshun county. “I had to use my fingers to feel around in the soil to see where it was rocky or where corn might survive.”

Yu accepted the government’s relocation offer four years ago. Her family got two free apartments in Kangshun Relocation Compound, each 70 square meters in size. She owns a restaurant near the new settlement and she’s happy the family moved, though sometimes she misses the old traditions of her village, like the songs and celebrations of the Spring Festival.

Many who embraced relocation already had experience working in cities far from home as part of the nation’s migrant workforce, and they’re happy to have the conveniences of the new relocation centers.

“It’s better to move,” said Li, 35, a former migrant worker, who relocated to the Zhengguang Migrant Settlement Complex in northeast Guizhou, where he runs a small package-delivery business. He remembers as a child watching someone die from an injury after an accident in his old hometown because there was no hospital nearby.

“Now we have a hospital barely 10 minutes away and my son goes to a school in our residential compound that provides breakfast and lunch,” said Li, who like many people in China, would only give his family name. “When I was a kid, I had to walk for an hour to get to school.”

At a table near the entrance to the new town, recruitment officer Chen Fenping sits waiting to sign up new residents for training.

“Anyone who’s keen to find a job will find one,” says Chen. The school trains cooks, electricians, domestic helpers and garment-makers, paying students 40 yuan a day (about ¥680) during the monthlong course, before introducing them to an employer. She says many villagers find it hard to adapt to the fixed working hours.

But not everyone relocates voluntarily.

Farmers harvest broccoli in Bijie in China's Guizhou province. | AFP-JIJI
Farmers harvest broccoli in Bijie in China’s Guizhou province. | AFP-JIJI

China has been uprooting communities from their ancestral homes and resettling them, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away, for decades. Often, as in the case of the Three Gorges, the exodus is compulsory. But even when it’s supposed to be voluntary, overzealous officials sometimes put pressure on residents to leave in order to meet Communist Party goals.

“I received a call from the village chief, who told me I had to move without giving any reason,” said Chen Minglan, 54. “The next thing I know is my vegetable garden has been destroyed without my consent.” Chen is from an ethnic minority group and is only able to write her name in Chinese. She stays at home, taking care of her grandchildren, while her husband works on a construction site in the eastern province of Zhejiang, 1,300 kilometers away.

More than 4,000 families have moved to the Zhengguang complex since 2019, yet it has an air of emptiness. Most of the people around are women, children, or seniors. Many of the men are working far away in the big cities. Ties to their old village homes can be seen in the traditional ethnic blue hats the women wear to the market, balancing a bamboo basket on their shoulders. A former village doctor in his 80s sits at a table outside his apartment building, selling herbs gathered in the mountains.

These old village ways often sit uncomfortably with city authorities. Last year, resident Chen Minglan secretly planted cucumbers on a slope behind her apartment. Her clandestine vegetable plot was destroyed by community managers. The Guizhou Ecological Migration Bureau didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Surveys at two of Guizhou’s ecological resettlement locations by Guizhou University of Finance and Economics show that because of language and cultural barriers and other obstacles to integration, 79% of migrants ended up without stable jobs. Almost three-quarters of respondents cited the break-up of their old networks because villagers were sent to different places.

The government has said the programs are important, not just to protect people from natural disasters, but to support poverty alleviation. As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary this month, it claims to have lifted 100 million people out of poverty by the end of 2020, many of them in climate-fragile regions.

“The ecological migration project helps to transfer rural populations to the cities and towns, to promote infrastructure construction, to expand the city scale, to strengthen urban economic vitality and to accelerate the pace of urbanization,” China’s National Rural Revitalization Bureau says.

Propaganda slogans endorsing this idea and quoting President Xi Jinping are everywhere in Guizhou. “We will resolutely win the battle against poverty,” reads a sign painted on a wall in Xiang’s village of Ma’an. But relocation is not a silver bullet for poverty.

“A lot of the policies are based on the understanding that urbanization in a certain way is inherently good and the right way to reduce poverty,” said Andrew Stokols, a former Fulbright Fellow who studied the effects of forced relocation in western China. But are they “actually are out of poverty or just owning a new home?”

The reality is that most of China’s migrants left their villages long ago for economic reasons. In Ma’an, Xiang Yang’s three children all left to work or study in the city and don’t plan to return. His neighbor moved to a nearby town, returning for the holiday only to visit his 82-year-old mother, Tang Wanmei, who refuses to leave and plays traditional folk songs each day at full volume on a loudspeaker.

“I’m so old now,” says Tang, sitting in a bamboo chair facing the mountains. “I am happy just living here.”

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