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

Sat, Jan 13, 2018 - Page 9

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.

Look the other way and you see part of the construction site for a high-speed rail line that is to link Yunnan’s capital, Kunming — as well as Jinghong — with the Laotian capital, Vientiane, and possibly one day, Singapore.

“All the major developers are now coming,” Li Yanjun said. “The city is booming.”

Smog is not the only factor driving migration to Xishuangbanna. Ji, who used to work for the state-run China Development Bank, said he was also tired of human beings.

“Beijing has too many people, it is too big, and has too many tall buildings. I do not like it,” he said.

Jin Di, a Beijinger who runs Jinghong’s first craft brewery, Big Black Dog, said he came chasing opportunity; others were attracted by property prices.

“You can sell one house in Beijing and buy 10 here,” he said.

However, Jin, 37, said he regularly hosts northern guests who had received medical orders to quit the capital.

“Last year a lot of my friends came here because their children were always coughing — very serious coughs — and the doctor advised them to change place because if their children stayed in Beijing they would not [get better],” he said.

During 2016’s airpocalypse, “a lot of people came here to buy houses,” he said.

Li Yanjun said he had mixed feelings about the changes.

As the first member of a family of rubber tappers to go to university, he benefited directly from two decades of development. However, such growth was “a double-edged sword,” because cement factories on the outskirts of town meant Jinghong was no longer completely smog-free.

Ji and Liu, who hope to start a family in their new home, said they were also wary of unbridled growth and the pollution from the growing numbers of cars and construction sites.

Still, having spent more than half of his life in mega-cities — including a year in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with a population of 20 million — Ji said he was happy with life in Jinghong, which has only about 530,000 residents.

“The air is good. The weather is good. If we want to climb mountains, all we have to do is drive for a few minutes. In every respect, things are better here.”

How long would they stay?

“I do not know — maybe forever,” he said, before correcting himself: “Probably.”

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen