Post-Quake Tourism Plan Divides Chinese Villagers Local officials are transforming part of Mao'ershi village in China's Sichuan province into a tourist attraction: a community showcasing the culture of the Qiang minority. Money is pouring into the project, while residents in neighboring areas are in desperate need of help.
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Post-Quake Tourism Plan Divides Chinese Villagers

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Post-Quake Tourism Plan Divides Chinese Villagers

Post-Quake Tourism Plan Divides Chinese Villagers

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China is still recovering from this year's deadly earthquake which left five million people homeless. As we heard yesterday, the devastated county of Beichuan hopes that tourism will revitalize the economy. But one major new tourism project has divided locals as NPR's Louisa Lim found out on a recent reporting trip to Sichuan province.

LOUISA LIM: This is a tale of two villages. Well, one village really, but a village divided by geography and a bureaucratic decision. Mao'ershi village is split into five districts, and in districts one and two, reconstruction is already well underway. Cement mixers churn and a red banner proclaims 40 days of struggle. The goal is for villagers to move into their new houses before Chinese New Year. This is no ordinary settlement.

Mr. ZHANG LANQING (Party Secretary, Beichuan): (Chinese Spoken)

LIM: This will be Beichuan county's premier village, says its party secretary, Zhang Lanqing. The government has decided districts one and two will become a model village renamed Jina Qiang Village because of their location at the bottom of a valley. This settlement will showcase the culture of the Qiang people, an ethnic group closely related to Tibetans, so local officials have designed a new village consisting entirely of blocky, fortress-like brick houses that have some Qiang characteristics, and it's helping build them - even for villager Wang Xiaoqi, who says he didn't need one.

Mr. WANG XIAOQI: (Through Translator) After the earthquake, there was only a little damage to my house, so I just wanted to repair it. But there was a new plan to develop tourism, so the government tore down all the houses in the village. I have to pay for a new house, so I do have some worries.

LIM: At least three other families say their homes survived the quake largely undamaged and were subsequently razed for the tourism project.

(Soundbite of a man speaking in Chinese)

LIM: But government officials insist the buildings were too badly damaged to be left standing. They stress that villagers were consulted about the new plan, and more than 70 percent agreed. Fifty-five-year-old Wang Xiaoqi runs a tent restaurant feeding the construction workers. He says his new house will cost around $30,000 U.S. He'll get a $2,000 government subsidy and an interest-free loan of $7,000. He will have to borrow the other $20,000 with interest. He doesn't know how he'll pay it back. His old lifestyle, subsistence farming, has disappeared, the farming land swallowed by the new village and new roads. So, the villagers are counting on income from tourism. This is not just an engineering project, but social engineering, too, making farmers into service industry workers. Wang Xiaoqi says most are pleased.

Mr. XIAOQI: (Through Translator) Generally speaking, the villagers are quite satisfied with the reconstruction. The new houses are better and more solid. Some people are unhappy because their old houses were bigger. But if tourism develops here, we'll have better opportunities in our lives.

LIM: Farther up the valley, in the village's third district, the situation is very different, according to residents warming themselves around a fire in an old oil drum. The model Qiang village doesn't include this settlement or the fourth and fifth districts. That means no Qiang-style houses, no blueprint for a new village. Each family is rebuilding by themselves. But bricks have tripled in price since the quake, and some people, like 52-year-old Xia Xueqi, have been refused loans.

Mr. XIA XUEQI: (Through Translator) I'm too old, and my children are too young, so the bank is scared I wouldn't be able to pay the money back. I've got no plans to rebuild my house yet. I don't have the money.

LIM: Mr. Xia is heaving sacks of cement for another richer neighbor to make money. It's dirty, heavy work, and a gray mask of cement dust plasters his wrinkled face. He's one of the most vulnerable, a widower and a single parent with two daughters aged seven and sixteen. He can't afford to send his older daughter to school anymore. And these villagers can't help feeling neglected.

Mr. XUEQI: (Through Translator) We really hoped the government would take responsibility for us like the first brigade, but the plan doesn't reach here. Of course, it's not fair. Their treatment is far better.

LIM: These two men provide a case study in contrast. One, whose slightly damaged house was demolished by the local government, forcing him to take out big loans for a new house. The other, whose house was destroyed by the quake, but who's been unable to borrow the money he needs to start rebuilding. One estimate is that the show village alone will cost $2.9 million - a huge amount of money on one hamlet, when so many are in desperate need. Nonetheless, Beichuan's tourism and culture director, Lin Chuan, denies any bias.

Mr. LIN CHUAN (Director, Beichuan Tourism and Culture): (Through Translator) The government's policy on reconstruction is the same for everyone. That village is the first to be built, but the government's subsidies are the same for all. Those residents will have to pay back their loans through their earnings from tourism.

LIM: Build it and they will come. Local officials are betting domestic tourists will come here to support the quake hit zone, despite China's economic downturn. Officials here make hard choices in their bid to develop tourism. And the different fates of these two men show the human cost of those decisions. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Mao'ershi Village, Beichuan County, China.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, villagers are getting ready for tourists in an unusual way - by changing their ethnicity.

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