China's Li Aborigines Still Live on the Edge

When Beijing granted special trade status to Hainan island, its economy boomed. But the new prosperity has left the island's ethnic minorities behind. IN THE FOOTHILLS OF THE FIVE FINGER MOUNTAINS

IN the 1920s, hunger drove Wang Yixin to cut off his flowing black hair, exchange his loincloth for a "uniform," and join a rebellion of fellow aborigines against Nationalist forces on China's southern Hainan Island.Waging "hit-and-run" warfare in Hainan's craggy Five Finger Mountains, the aborigines eventually won, fighting alongside communist guerrillas to rout the last of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists from Hainan in 1950. But Mr. Wang, with his Army-issue straw sandals and wage of a few cents a month, hadn't conquered hunger. "We were always starved in the Army. Every day, all we had was a little sweet potato," recalls Wang. "We lived just like oxen." Today, the veteran still has barely enough to eat. He dreams of replacing the thatched roof on his mud hut with a tile one that won't blow away during Hainan's frequent typhoons. But even if he had the money to rebuild, Wang says he lacks the strength. The Li minority village where Wang lives in the foothills of the mist-enshrouded Five Finger Mountains lies off a muddy road accessible only by foot much of the time. Villagers subsist on rice culled from low-yielding paddy fields cut in terraces into the green hillsides. They also grow tobacco, rice for brewing wine, and a few tropical fruits. With no newspapers, television, or radio, villagers are cut off from the world outside. Wang and his grandchildren say they have never heard of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, or of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen crackdown on student protesters. Wang's life illustrates how stubbornly penury has persisted since the 1949 revolution in China's ex-guerrilla bases and ethnic minority regions - two areas long targeted for special welfare by the Communist Party. Poverty is far more prevalent among minorities, which make up 8 percent of China's total population, than among the dominant Han Chinese. In old revolutionary bases, impoverished Red Army veterans angry over a lack of benefits have reportedly staged protests in recent years. Wang, too, complains that he receives no benefits. The government, which had hoped to eradicate poverty by 1990, says the work will continue for five more years. Some 50 million Chinese still live under the poverty line, with annual incomes of less than $38. The income gap between poor, mountain and border regions and wealthier coastal areas has widened dramatically since China launched market-oriented reforms in 1979. The growing divide between haves and have-nots is manifest on Hainan. Beijing designated the island as China's newest province and largest free-enterprise zone in 1988, giving it unprecedented leeway to promote trade, investment, and private enterprise. Over the next three years, the average income of island residents leapt by more than 50 percent. But Hainan's leaders failed to achieve another stated goal: ending the poverty of one-sixth of the island's population, or some 1 million people. That goal has been pushed back to 1995. Meanwhile, some 800,000 Hainanese, mainly minorities of the Li and Miao ethnic groups, lack the basic necessities known in Chinese as wenbao, literally "dressing warmly and eating one's fill." "We really haven't solved the problem of food and clothing for our poor and backward population," admits Liao Xun, a provincial official who oversees economic development. Chinese officials tend to blame the poverty of Hainan's minorities on the people's "backwardness" and "uncivilized" ways. But Western scholars point to rash, ill-conceived government policies that wasted Hainan's resources by attempting to impose a northern Chinese agricultural model on the tropical island. Ever since China's Han Dynasty rulers first attempted to conquer Hainan some 2,000 years ago, the arrogance of Han Chinese toward Li "barbarians" has fueled bitter conflicts. For centuries, China failed to subdue the Lis. In the 11th century, Song Dynasty rulers gained a stronger hold on Hainan. Yet until modern times, Chinese continued to differentiate between the "raw," or "wild" Lis, and the "cooked," or "tame," Lis. Waves of Chinese settlers and soldiers gradually pushed the Lis off the more fertile, coastal lands and into the rugged, central mountains they inhabit today. Chinese prejudice against the Lis was vividly demonstrated in 1933. Two dozen Lis, said to be "born of monkeys and raised by snakes," were exhibited in iron cages for three months at a park in the southern city of Guangzhou, according to official accounts. When the Lis revolted beginning in the late 1920s, they fought mainly to end Han Chinese oppression. It was not until 1943, after the famous Baisha uprising was put down by the Nationalists, that the Lis sided with the Red Army in China's civil war, the accounts say. After the 1949 revolution, the Communist Party attempted to make the most of the alliance to consolidate its rule over Hainan. Wang Guoxing, a Li chief who led the Baisha uprising, was nominally put in charge of Hainan's minority regions. Propagandists wrote a now-famous revolutionary opera, the "Red Detachment of Women," about a group of women Red Army fighters in the Five Finger Mountains. Yet behind this facade, government policies were geared toward assimilating the Lis culturally and moving them onto state communes, according to American social scientist Catherine Enderton, an expert on Hainan. During Mao Zedong's anarchic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the Lis were barred from wearing their traditional dress. Young Li women could no longer tatoo their faces with the ornate, blue patterns indicating social status. All Li children were taught the Chinese language in school. Red Guards jailed Li rebel Wang Guoxing as a "reactionary element." While suppressing Li culture, the communists' massive land reclamation campaigns and radical efforts to industrialize destroyed resources, including 50 percent of Hainan's forest cover, in the years from 1950 to 1980. China's market-oriented reforms of the 1980s allowed the Lis to regain control over their land and produce some cash crops, leading to marginal improvements in living standards. Wang's village now has electricity, and since 1989 has had some running water. The village primary school, which was so dangerously dilapidated that students held class outdoors, has recently been rebuilt. Yet expectations for change are not high; if progress comes, it does so slowly, villagers say. "If one generation works hard, the next one will be a little better off," says Wang, whittling a piece of bamboo.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.