Sat, Jan 13, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Building boom in China’s tropics as ‘smog refugees’ flee toxic air

Jaded urbanites keen to outrun the hustle and bustle of Beijing put down roots near the border with Myanmar and Laos

By Tom Phillips  /  The Guardian, JINGHONG, China

Illustration: Lance Liu

It was on Jan. 3 last year, days after Beijing’s last major airpocalypse, that Ji Feng put into action his plan to escape one of the world’s most polluted cities.

After more than two decades as a resident of China’s smog-choked capital, he boarded a flight for Jinghong, an azure-skied river town in Yunnan Province, close to China’s borders with Myanmar and Laos.

There, more than 2,575km from Beijing’s toxic climes, Ji coughed up 460,000 yuan (US$71,079) for a two-bedroom apartment in a palm-dotted condominium near the Mekong river.

Two months later, he returned with his wife, Liu Bing, to start afresh.

The couple placed a doormat at the entrance to their pollution-free abode that read: “Natural life.”

“I do not miss the urban life, and now we have moved here, the chances of us going back are slim. For me, life is better here,” he said.

Ji and Liu, 40 and 32, are part of a small but telling band of jaded Chinese urbanites seeking to outrun the hustle and bustle of their country’s big smoke.

Some are permanently moving to China’s comparatively peaceful and preserved periphery, putting down roots in places such as Yunnan or Hainan, a tropical outpost in the South China Sea.

“Stocks and futures,” Ji chuckled when asked how he made a living in his new home.

Others are seasonal migrants — so-called “smog refugees” or elderly “migratory birds” — who take extended annual breaks to avoid the worst of the winter weather.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) recently launched his second term with a pledge to make China’s skies blue again and experts say he is making progress: In November, Beijing’s air quality was better than any previous winter month on record, Greenpeace said.

However, many cities still endure hazardous smog episodes that are blamed for up to a million premature deaths each year.

Hotels catering to such urban fugitives have sprung up across Jinghong, the capital of Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna Prefecture. At one, a check-in brochure promises guests an “untainted” stay. “Don’t worry: You won’t get intoxicated with the fresh air,” it says.

Property developers are also cashing in, throwing up gites and apartments partly geared towards China’s “clean lung” market. At Jinghong’s airport, posters announce one gated community called Viva Villa with the slogan: “Fresh air.”

“The weather is really good; there are no chemical factories and we have tropical forest,” sales agent Li Rongrong said, as she showed off mansions in a soon-to-open compound called Rivulet Villas.

Estate agent Li Yanjun, said green living was a key part of his sales pitch to northerners.

“The only time we talk about PM2.5 here is when we are trying to sell a property to someone from Beijing,” the 35-year-old said, referring to the minuscule particulates that strike fear into the hearts — and lungs — of Beijingers.

Xishuangbanna’s renown as an oasis of fresh air and forests has made it one of China’s premier domestic clean-lung destinations, but some locals fear that very reputation is now robbing the region of some of its natural charms.

The stampede of tourists and developers has transformed Jinghong’s skyline over the past decade. Gargantuan luxury hotels now rise from patches of forest — half fortresses, half multistory car parks.

Look in one direction and you see yellow cranes erecting Nine Towers, Twelve Villages, a garish riverside resort of high-rises and shopping malls built on the site of a recently bulldozed village that was inhabited by members of the Dai ethnic minority.

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