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Poverty in China

China’s last cave tribe resist government attempts to move them on and let the tourists in

Struggles of living in barren, isolated Zhongdong are outweighed by protection against the elements and the uncertainty of life elsewhere, villagers say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2018, 7:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 10:49am

It had been raining for a week as April drew to a close. Taking advantage of the natural irrigation, Luo Dengguang and his wife, like other villagers in Zhongdong – which means ‘middle cave’ – were busy sowing corn seeds in small patches among the rocks. 

Found in southwest China among the karst hills of Ziyun county, in Guizhou, one of the country’s most poverty-stricken provinces, the cave is home to an entire village, all of the Miao ethnic group, leading an agrarian lifestyle controlled by its distinctive light and weather. 

Despite the barren soil, the lack of road access and their meagre income, Luo and his fellow villagers, labelled the nation’s last cave tribe, have resisted the local government’s offer to help them move.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a very good life,” said Luo, in his forties and already a grandfather. 

“But here in the cave we don’t need to deal with the coldness in the winter or the heat in the summer. Government officials have come here many times, but we just don’t want to move.” 

Zhongdong’s poverty trap

Pledging to end poverty by 2020, the Chinese government has been clearing remote mountain villages by offering farmers new homes in towns, relocating 8.3 million people over the past five years. 

More than 30 million people in mainland China – about 2 per cent of the total population – were still living under the poverty line by the end of last year, official statistics showed.

Its poverty threshold in 2017 was an annual income of 3,300 yuan (US$520, or US$1.4 per day), using 2010 prices – lower than the World Bank’s international poverty line of US$1.9 per day, using 2011 prices.

Guizhou’s average rural annual income was 8,800 yuan, but Zhongdong’s was close to China’s poverty line and below that of the World Bank, at about 3,800 yuan (US$600, or US$1.6 per day), according to Liu Chizhong, a party official from the Getu River township government. 

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The government initiative has presented a dilemma in Zhongdong, with villagers worried about losing what little livelihood they may have, along with the shelter that nature has given them.

Climate control

The cave, at an altitude of 2,200 metres, is 40 minutes’ walk plus an hour’s drive from the county centre. 

Measuring over 100 metres wide, 50 metres high and 230 metres deep, it is home to 18 households totalling about 100 people, of whom half, mostly young labourers, have left to work in cities. 

Villagers first moved into the cave after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to evade bandits, said Luo. 

Life is simple but they are self-sufficient. Most of their houses, made of wood or bamboo, are built near the front of the cave, with the inner part mostly empty. 

Reverberating with crowing, barking and mooing, the cave also houses chickens, dogs, cattle and pigs, and provides drinking water for the people and animals. 

Each household has a small pool supplying it with water, collected from larger reservoirs beneath the spots where water drops from the roof. 

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There was no electricity until the early 2000s, when an American traveller sponsored a facility and built a school inside the cave for the child inhabitants. 

He would return several times with cash gifts – although, unable to speak Mandarin clearly in most cases, the villagers were unable to state his name or the exact years of his visits.

The school was closed a few years later, however, when the government moved the children to township schools that are two hours away on foot, villagers said. 

The price of intervention

For Luo, the family’s only regular income comes from his son and daughter-in-law, who work in the eastern province of Zhejiang and live there with their young child. 

“Nothing grows well in the land here, and we raise a pig a year, which is enough for us to eat,” Luo said. “We don’t raise pigs to sell, because it’s not easy to get them out to the market.” 

An occasional source of pocket money for the villagers’ homestays and kitchens is the handful of visitors. One of the attractions in a national scenic area, the Getu River National Park, the village receives a few dozen tourists a week during peak season and few at other times, owing to their lack of access to the cave. 

“Most of them just make a brief stop and only a small number stay to buy lunch from us,” said Luo. “Tourism is not a big thing here.” 

Liu, who is responsible for liaising with the villagers over government efforts to tackle poverty, has been visiting the cave every month since the local government began pushing harder for relocation a year ago. 

It has proved a difficult task for him, with the villagers “illiterate” and not listening to his advice, he said. 

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“They are old-fashioned and seriously clinging to support from the government,” Liu told the South China Morning Post by telephone. “The clothes you saw them wearing are all provided by the government.” 

To him, Zhongdong is not a very habitable place. The major crop that local people grow, corn, is often disturbed or eaten by the monkeys that can be found in the area. 

Life on the outside

Determined to develop the cave into a major tourist attraction, the government first built new brick houses beneath the cave for the villagers, then offered to relocate them to the town of Getuhe, and recently suggested moving them to the inner urban area of Ziyun, Liu said. 

When the brick houses were completed in 2008, all of the villagers moved, but most of them had returned to the cave a year later. 

“First, we were not used to living in such houses, where everything around the house got wet on rainy days, which is not the case in the cave,” said villager Wang Qiguo.

“Besides, it made no difference because we still needed to walk such a long way to the cement road.” 

The new homes also brought maintenance costs that had not arisen when they lived in the cave. 

“When it rains, the wooden doors will rot,” Wang said. “You have to repair the house every few years, and change the tiles. But here in the cave it’s dry every day.” 

The villagers also refused to move to more urban areas, because they would have lost their farmland. 

Having worked in affluent regions from the age of 16 before returning recently, Wang, now in his forties, said he missed home, regardless of how basic it is. 

“On summer nights when I worked on construction sites, and when I couldn’t sleep because of the heat, I missed it here so much,” he said. “It’s just like being in a large room with air conditioning.

“If we move, they will take control of the cave and it will no longer be ours.”

A road to salvation

All the villagers want is a road, said Wang, but the county government has refused on the grounds that it is a national park and the central government’s approval would be needed to build a road. 

Another thing they were given but did not want was a cable car from the nearest cement road to the cave, which is under construction. 

Despite being offered free use of it, villagers thought it would not particularly improve their lives. 

“This is mainly for tourists’ use,” said Wu Baozhen, 30, one of the few young parents who have stayed to look after their children on their own because the grandparents are ill.

“It can carry people, but cannot transport livestock or crops,” she said. 

Liu said that, to persuade people to move, the government has also suggested giving them permanent ownership of existing farmland, letting them keep their houses, and sharing tourism revenue. 

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They could be employed as government construction workers after quitting farm work, he said. 

With the 2020 deadline approaching in China’s battle against poverty, Liu said he and his colleagues were “under great pressure”. 

“If they insist on staying, we will have to think of other measures, like creating other jobs for them,” he said. 

Asked whether there was any possibility of Zhongdong’s determined inhabitants having to be moved on forcibly, Liu said: “There might be.”