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2018-03-30 04:59:18  + video Commentary

In some parts of China, the government carries out relocation campaigns when families cannot subsist on a single plot of land or when they need to make way for large-scale infrastructure projects. Liu Yongfu, the director of poverty alleviation at the State Council — China’s cabinet — announced at the recent Two Sessions political meetings that the state plans to relocate more than 10 million people by the end of the 13th Five-Year Plan, which concludes in 2020.

This nationwide policy has already affected my second uncle, Heping, and my oldest aunt, Ying, who were relocated from my family’s hometown of Yangxipu in northeastern Shiyan — a city in central China’s Hubei province known as the country’s “Motor City” — to a township in the jurisdiction of Xiangyang City, around 170 kilometers to the southeast. The relocation is due to the South-to-North Water Diversion Project (SNWDP), a vast infrastructure initiative that aims to transfer water resources from southern China to its parched northern regions. Shiyan sits along the middle route of the SNWDP, and around 470,000 residents have moved away so far.

This isn’t the first time my family has been moved. My grandparents recall the mass relocation of their hometown in Yun County in the 1970s to make way for the Danjiangkou Reservoir. Many towns and villages in that area dated to the Ming Dynasty and had stood for more than 500 years; practically overnight, they vanished beneath the waters of the reservoir. I have heard elderly former residents of Yun County complain that, because the reservoir destroyed the local feng shui, nobody of note has been born in our part of the country since the resettlement.

At the start of the 2000s, domestic news channels covered the relocation of residents near another mammoth water project in Hubei: the Three Gorges Dam. Whenever my father saw the high-rise apartments and lines of factories in the relocated residents’ new towns, he would sigh: “Ah, we Shiyan people are too naive. When the government tells us we need to contribute, we just relocate and ask for nothing in return.”

Residents share their opinions of the relocation campaigns in Caishenmiao Village, Shiyan, Hubei province, June 2017. By Daniel Holmes/Sixth Tone

Dad mostly regrets being born at the wrong time. During the resettlements of the 1970s, China was still an impoverished nation, unable — some might also say unwilling — to adequately compensate everyone. Most people cared more about getting enough to eat than preserving the nation’s cultural relics. So he and the rest of the family relocated to higher ground without giving much thought to the fertile farmland and stunning old towns that would be washed away.

Then, in September 2005, the government began work to heighten the existing Danjiangkou Dam. I remember how, during Spring Festival the following year, Yangxipu — a town whose days were now numbered — was abuzz with news of the prospective relocation.

The dense villages of the northwestern Hubei mountains had long since overwhelmed local ecosystems. The area was densely populated to start with, but as more and more people were resettled there — along with the baby boom of the ’60s and ’70s — there was less and less housing and farmland to go around. Some residents lived and planted crops side by side with graveyards. Anyone who could afford to do so found work elsewhere, and parents told their children to find a job in the city. Only three members of my family chose to stay put.

“Relocation isn’t the worst thing in the world,” my third uncle, Weiguo, said. “We always learned in school that our village was as beautiful as a painting. But when we ventured outside, we realized that our hometown was not that appealing. Our commune,” he continued, referring to the agricultural work units designated by earlier Communist governments, “taught us that we could work to change the world, but now our work is only damaging the environment.”

Huge swaths of the Han River basin were washed away during the relocation of the 1970s, forcing the villagers from the hillside to the mountaintop. But once there, they found that the rocky mountaintop had little arable land and a shortage of firewood.

[Dad] and the rest of the family relocated to higher ground without giving much thought to the fertile farmland and stunning old towns that would be washed away.

The mountains around Shiyan bear the scars of past infrastructure projects. There is the canal constructed during the planned economy era, the cement roads built at the turn of the century to carry TV cables into town, and the watchtower erected during a push for the government’s ongoing reforestation policy. But all this investment has failed to substantially improve the village: Renovated roads are riddled with potholes, living standards remain low, and villagers would rather leave to find jobs.

Soon after the SNWDP’s launch in 2003, local officials saw the project as a way to curry favor with their superiors and bring additional investment into Shiyan and Xiangyang. Since the 1990s, some of the state-owned auto parts factories in Yun County had been closing down. The SNWDP meant that the Party would free up funding to sink into local infrastructure and relocation initiatives. The project intended for the Han River to rise from 120 meters to 160 meters, flooding all 370 square kilometers of the greater Shiyan area.

Government workers canvassed door to door, imploring the villagers to cooperate with the relocation policy and agree to resettle in newly built apartments in Yicheng, a settlement in the jurisdiction of nearby Xiangyang. The new homes were mortgaged according to the size of a family’s old home: If their old home was larger, then they would be compensated for the difference, usually between 800 and 1,200 yuan ($130 to $190) per square meter; if their old home was smaller and the family requested a larger home, then they could purchase the difference.

Some villages were completely rebuilt and their residents rehoused. In their new locations, each village retained its name and governance structure. In most cases, residents were allotted around three times as much land as they had before.

At first, Uncle Heping didn’t want to relocate. When he was younger, he saved up money to buy the village’s oil press and its large citrus grove. His success with these ventures meant that he cared little about compensation amounting to a couple hundred thousand yuan. But after the irrigation committee learned that his home sat in a potential landslide location, relocation became compulsory, and he begrudgingly agreed to it.

Ying’s family generally held a positive view of relocation. By 2000, their old family home had turned into a so-called empty nest. Both parents were working odd jobs in Shiyan City to earn tuition money for their then-middle school children, and they grew corn and sesame on their farmland. “I got a pretty good cut from relocating,” Ying told me after the most recent resettlement, beaming. “The water flows up to Beijing where my daughter is now working, and the compensation money can go toward the bride price for my son’s future wife.”

The local authorities specifically scheduled the relocation for the day before Mid-Autumn Festival 2010 as a way of mobilizing people. It would also ensure that everyone could celebrate Chinese New Year in their new hometown of Yicheng. The middle route of the SNWDP officially opened on Dec. 12, 2014.

Relocation has left most people in Shiyan with mixed feelings. Aside from the welcome windfall of compensation money, many feel genuine pride for sacrificing their former homes for the central government, even joking that if Beijing tried any funny business with them in the future, they’d pee in the river and watch it flow upstream to the capital.

But Ying and her family can’t help but feel a certain sense of loss. Having become accustomed to urban work, the relocation forced them back into farm work that the family deems undignified. Whereas they grew vegetables before, they now grow grains, which requires them to learn new farming skills late in life. Their new apartment is farther from the city than their old place, meaning they’ve had to give up the odd jobs they did before.

Now in her mid-50s, Ying is having to adapt to a new life in Yicheng. Despite the difficulties, she’s trying to stay positive. “Nobody would hire us in a few years anyway,” she sighs. “I suppose, in the end, this will all work out OK.”

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: An aerial view of Caishenmiao Village in Shiyan, Hubei province, June 2017. Daniel Holmes/Sixth Tone)