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    In China’s Idyllic Rural Resorts, Prosperity Is Only Skin-Deep

    A poverty-stricken Chinese village won national fame after transforming into a chic tourist haven. But beneath its glittering surface lurks a grittier reality.

    This is part three in a series on the aftermath of China’s now-completed war on “extreme poverty.” View the entire series here.

    YUNNAN, Southwest China — Recently, Zhou Zhixue has been rethinking his decision to move back to Hebian, the village where he grew up.

    In 2015, a grandiose revitalization plan promised to turn the remote, rainforest hamlet into a resort town for jaded urbanites. Zhou, 27, decided to give up the relative riches of his migrant worker career and move back, convinced that tourism was the future.

    And it was — for a while. In 2019, Hebian residents’ average annual income reached 8,000 yuan (then $1,150), double what it had been just four years earlier. The village, once a smattering of wooden huts without modern plumbing, is now a sleek constellation of tasteful modern houses, restaurants, and one convenience store. National media regularly hail the village as a shining success story in China’s campaign to eliminate extreme poverty, and officials from across the country travel to learn from Hebian’s experience.

    But this year the homestays have stood empty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And though domestic tourism picked back up during the spring as infections in China dwindled, Hebian was slow to see visitors return. During the first half of the year, the village’s cooperative that oversees guesthouse bookings didn’t process a single invoice, according to Zhou.

    The experience has spread doubt among Hebian residents on whether their newfound prosperity will prove viable in the long run. Most families have turned to subsistence farming and collecting rubber trees to make ends meet, as income from tourism has more than halved. The villagers’ apprehension echoes concern elsewhere that, as the poverty alleviation campaign cools down and the kind of subsidies that financed Hebian’s transformation disappear, the improvements in livelihoods could prove unsustainable.

    The mastermind behind Hebian’s turn to tourism is Li Xiaoyun, a renowned professor of development studies based in Beijing who, in 2015, discovered the village while researching poverty in southwestern Yunnan province.

    After driving for hours along a dirt road the locals had built themselves, Li was struck by the dire living conditions in Hebian, located in what was then one of the poorest areas in the country. Its 57 households — most with members of the Yao ethnic minority — made a living cultivating corn, sugar cane, and rice, as well as foraging in the jungle. Few spoke Mandarin, and many were heavily in debt.

    “It was a village with not one rich person ... all of them were trapped in poverty,” Li wrote in an article later published on social app WeChat.

    Moved by what he saw, Li, 58, decided to stay in Hebian to help the villagers improve their livelihoods. He stepped down as the dean of China Agriculture University’s College of Humanities and Development Studies, registered a nonprofit in Mengla — the county where Hebian is located — and moved into an abandoned bungalow in the village.

    At the time, China was providing funding for housing renovations in villages across the country as part of a broader push to alleviate poverty through rural infrastructure-building programs — a government policy Li helped advise. He thought the villagers should use these subsidies to upgrade their traditional houses into homestays, that, together with Hebian’s fresh air and beautiful landscapes, would turn the village into a retreat that could host academic conferences and members of the middle class looking to escape the city.

    The villagers didn’t buy it at first, unsure whether people would come to their remote corner of the country nearly bordering Laos, and whether they’d have enough money to finance it all. But Li persisted. He had staff from his new nongovernmental organization — Action Against Poverty (AAP China) — create giant boards outlining his ideas and placed them around the village to help convince locals the plan could work. The professor had a trial wooden home built free-of-charge for one daring local, which succeeded and persuaded many others to sign up. AAP China also helped villagers furnish their new houses.

    When Zhou returned to Hebian in late 2015, the migrant worker found his formerly tranquil hometown transformed into a giant, bustling construction site. Everyone was busy tearing down their old homes and gathering wood for new ones. Soon after arriving, he attended a village meeting and saw Li presenting his plans. Zhou wasn’t sure what to make of him. “He looked very thin,” he says, recalling his first sight of the professor. But believing there were opportunities in his hometown, Zhou chose to stay, as did several other former migrant workers. AAP China recruited these young people and trained them to run small businesses in the village.

    By 2019, the year Mengla was declared to no longer be impoverished, Hebian had achieved a reputation as a model for a progressive approach to poverty alleviation. Unlike the government’s more rudimentary, campaign-style efforts, AAP China emphasized developing local skills and improving education. It helped the village organize a cooperative so local families could work together and share income from their homestays — an approach Li has termed a “participatory poverty alleviation experiment.”

    The village cooperative is run by five young locals, including Zhou, with supervision from Li and AAP China. It has gradually been taking over more responsibilities from the nonprofit, and the goal is for the village to eventually run all its own affairs independently. They don’t invite companies to manage guesthouses, because Li is concerned any commercialization will lead to the financial gains from tourism flowing out of the village, Zhou says.

    But tensions have started to flare within the cooperative as booking numbers have fallen. Before, Zhou and the others used to allocate guests to homestays on a rolling basis, to ensure everyone got a fair income. But this egalitarian practice has broken down from grumbles that some guesthouses provide better services and therefore deserve more bookings.

    The cooperative is now introducing a new system that prioritizes the best guesthouses. For an economy to be efficient, there might need to be some element of competition, Zhou sighs. “If your conditions aren’t good enough, you can’t be treated the same as the others,” he says.

    Other guesthouses, meanwhile, have been showing frustration toward the cooperative itself. The body typically takes 10% of the income from each booking, which it uses to pay the committee’s wages and fund public works in the village. But some villagers suspect its members are actually taking a higher percentage. Others, sensing an investment opportunity, took on more debts to finance building a bigger house with more room for guests.

    For Zhou, mediating these disputes has been a huge challenge, and he feels worn down by the burden of leadership. “I’m not capable enough,” he says. “I certainly have confidence in the future if Teacher Li continues to help the village. If he goes, we’ll have to think of another way out.”

    It’s an issue that troubles the professor, too. Despite efforts to prepare the village to independently run the cooperative, it still relies on Li and AAP China for funding and help with day-to-day operations. In an interview with China Central Television in October, Li said his biggest worry was that “there aren’t talents that can really lead the village.”

    “For a traditional villager, when they suddenly have to take on these modern systems and skills, all these ideas are very strange and unfamiliar,” Li tells Sixth Tone a few weeks later.

    Hebian also relies on Li for many of its guests. A large chunk of the village’s income used to come from hosting international development forums organized by Li, but most of the events were canceled. Their fledgling project running an annual science summer camp for a private school in Beijing also took a hit this year, with only seven families allowing their children to travel, rather than the expected 30.

    There is also general skepticism about the sheer number of villages in China putting their hopes on tourism to drive development. Some enjoy steady visitor numbers after being featured on TV or online, only to see that flood slow to a trickle when the initial hype evaporates. Some tourists in Hebian, too, say they arrived after seeing the village’s news coverage. Presumably, such media attention won’t last forever.

    In a chic, vintage-style bar on Hebian’s main road, Huang Zhicheng, 33, sits quietly at a wooden table. Despite the kind of upholstery that wouldn’t look out of place in well-heeled Shanghai — including bamboo-lined walls, polished tabletops, and rows of hanging wine glasses — his bar is vacant. It has been months since he last sold a drink, he says. 

    “When I first started working here, I had a lot of hope,” Huang tells Sixth Tone. “But now my faith has been a bit shaken.” Like Zhou, Huang joined the five-person committee running the cooperative in 2019, but due to the fall in tourist revenue he has only received 4,000 yuan this year. Since the pandemic began, Huang has earned next to nothing from the bar.

    While Zhou has spent much of this year tending to his grapefruit trees to earn extra cash and other villagers have been getting up early to collect rubber in the forest, Huang says he’s done with farming. It’s too tiring and unprofitable, he says, especially now that elephants are increasingly damaging local crops. The steep drop in income, however, has caused him to do some deep soul-searching.

    Among the villagers, there’s a sense of unease about their situation. Outsiders love to hold up Hebian as a rags-to-riches tale. But despite all the praise, locals don’t feel well-off. “Us farmers,” says Huang, “sometimes we feel that we’re still at a disadvantage.” 

    Walking down the street running between the guesthouses, Huang tells Sixth Tone the changes in the village have brought him little sense of achievement. “We don’t really feel proud,” he says. “We’re just an object of poverty alleviation that others regard as poor. Would you call that honorable?”

    Other villagers continually point out how much Hebian still lags behind other villages in Mengla. Several note that only three families in Hebian own a car, a pitiful number compared with wealthier areas. While Hebian made 1 million yuan from tourism last year, another Mengla village, situated close to the Laos border in low-lying agricultural land, generated over 40 million yuan selling vegetables.

    For the community, these local comparisons really matter. There are dozens of single people living in Hebian who are struggling to find a partner because of the village’s relative poverty, says a villager in his 50s surnamed Deng. “The Hebian men don’t look bad,” he says. “The guys in other villages don’t look good, but they’re married … Except for the housing, we rank far behind in our township.” Zhou concurs, saying that sometimes his hometown feels like an “empty shell.”

    No one has spent more time pondering the Hebian model than Li, the professor. Have the policies he promoted, he now wonders, ended up turning the village into a “garden built for outsiders?”

    In a recent article, the professor offered a critique of the Hebian experiment, outlining its achievements, but also its weaknesses. Before, Li had failed to grasp the wisdom of smallholder farmers’ traditional, risk-resistant way of life, he admitted. He’d measured poverty in simply economic terms and hadn’t looked at things from the villagers’ point of view.

    One of the important lessons he’s learned from the project, Li wrote, is that “radical de-agricultural developmentalism is questionable.” In the future, China should consider a strategy of “slow modernization” to ensure long-term income growth for its rural citizens, he added.

    Rather than encouraging villages to jump straight from farming to the service economy, the professor said policymakers could instead help them create diversified agricultural businesses like beekeeping and raising livestock. This will help “reduce risks,” he wrote.

    In recent months, Li and AAP China have begun supporting Hebian villagers looking to grow new cash crops and raise more livestock, though these efforts haven’t generated much profit so far. Zhou and a few other cooperative members confess they’re considering leaving the village to become migrant workers once more. 

    Years of working odd jobs in big cities has made Zhou realize the importance of education. He plans to find work so he can help his younger sister — one of the first students in the village’s history to test into college — pay for her tuition fees. This way, Zhou hopes she can get a head start in life he wasn’t able to enjoy.

    Li says he’s aware of the villagers’ frustrations. Yet he’s still confident about the future of Hebian, though it’s “full of uncertainties.” He adds that he alone can’t lead Hebian to prosperity — only the villagers themselves can do that.

    “Since there is no way to avoid modernization, why don’t we explore with the villagers on how to enter the modern times?” says Li.

    Huang says he’s focusing on providing guests with better service, as a trickle of visitors gradually returns to the village. When he receives cookie-cutter questions from a new guest, he’s ready with a witty answer.

    “Some people asked me what the special dishes of Yao people are,” Huang says. “I told them that we didn’t have any special dishes, because we’ve just been lifted out of poverty.”

    Editors: Dominic Morgan and Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: A villager looks out the window of his renovated home, Hebian Village, Yunnan province, Nov. 1, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)