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An obscure group with no ID

Lin Ke, the photographer and author of the blog is a talented freelance journalist based in Beijing, whose celebrated works includes Bijie’s Winter, and Wandering Back Hometown. 

Lin Ke, the photographer and author of the blog, is a talented freelance journalist based in Beijing, whose celebrated works include Bijie’s Winter, and Wandering Back Hometown.

Over 4,000 Yi minority people now live in a deep recess of Daliang Mountains, South China’s Sichuan province. It is secluded from the world and half of the residents there don’t have Hukou (registered permanent residence), and thus are not entitled to any social welfare. They are illiterate, extremely poor, and alienated from the outside world. And, like genetic inheritance, the obscurity may pass on to their offspring—because most school-age children there can not afford school for various reasons.

The remote place is called by locals as Machanping. It is situated in the Liang Mountains prefecture of Sichuan province, only 50 km away from Xichang, capital city of the prefecture. For the past three decades, many peasants from neighboring counties like Xide, Jinyang, Zhaojue, Meigu and Leibo moved to Machanping.

Based on the rough calculation of local Yi minority villagers, Machanping now has over 700 households and around 4,000 people. Half of them don’t have Hukou, and even for the new immigrants who previously were registered in their hometowns, after settling in Machanping, they are not recognized by the local government and thus are deprived of all welfare provisions like pension or medical insurance. Once, each Yi family in the 17 counties in Liangshan prefecture was gifted three stools by the government (nicknamed “stool” project at the time), but those with no Hukou do not have access even to such a tiny benefit.

Machanping’s Yi people are scattered over the deep mountains. Without any support from the government, the villagers consider themselves to be “at the mercy of the nature, and no one would care even if they starve to death.” It usually takes two hours to walk from the foot of the mountain to Machanpin (on the rugged mountain road, horses are the only means of transport for carrying heavy objects). Local people drink from mountain creeks, and in dry seasons, they have to trudge over half an hour to fetch clean water. There is no electricity.  Although some better-off families use solar panels, the low voltage barely allows operation of big household appliances.    

At 2,150 meters above sea level, every family has barren farmland ranging 4 to 30 mu for growing potatoes, corn, duck, wheat and the like. Lack of water is a major handicap—from September 2011 to June of 2012, it never rained sufficiently. Some peasants planted 15 kilograms of maize seeds, but they only harvested 1.5 kilograms. Most peasants planted again when the first batch of plantation failed in want of water. The most regular vegetable for locals is called ‘suancai’, which is usually planted in August and harvested in November. Local families would sun-dry it and store on their roofs for use during the whole year. And not all of them could afford eating rice, usually costing 4.8 yuan/kg.

I spent several days visiting local families with school-age children of 7-14. There are a total of 463 of them, although some families may give a false report in a desperate effort to send their kids to school. Even with that number, there should be over 400 children in Machanping who are not getting any schooling. Families in Machanping usually have three to nine children. Hampered by the Hukou situation, poor economy and geographical disadvantage, the Yuma village school at the foot of the nearest mountain only has five students.

A lot of children would leave at the age of 14 for poorly paid manual work in big cities. Those who choose not to leave, then follow the vicious cycle of getting married, giving birth, not being able to send their children to school and thus creating illiterate offspring with no Hukou. The cycle has become an unending curse. According to my tour guide, among all the residents, only less than 10 can write Chinese characters, and less than 50 can write in their own Yi language. Even those who went to primary school for a few years can only make a simple conversation with poor writing abilities.

The Yi people have the tradition of branching from ancient times—when the tribe develops to some scale, it would branch into minor tribes and emigrate to new place to make a living. I visited Machanping three times and lived there for ten days in total. Among all the families I interviewed, 90% give the same reason for immigrating to Machanping—they could not make a living in their former places of residence. Their hometowns are situated in places over 3,000 meters above sea level, where they could barely make a living under harsh weather conditions.

So, they moved to Machanping, where the natural conditions are actually better. When they moved, the Hukou issue did not seem to be as serious, but now, when they go back for Hukou transfer formalities, they find that the old records have long been lost, which has created a situation of a large number of people without any ID here.

How to solve the Hukou problem?

Regarding the Hukou issue, I specially consulted a friend working in the public security department. The suggestions are as follows:

The settlement of so many Yi people in Machanping is an objective fact. The local government is supposed to do an evaluation about whether or not it’s necessary to set up a village committee for more effective administrative management.  

If the answer is yes, then the following preparations should be made:

1. Find out if the indigenous residents of Machanping are ever at odds with  the new immigrants or did they have any arguments over the past land-transfer deals.

To clarify the issue, I visited Ma Zhiqing, a respectable senior citizen of Machanping. He has witnessed the vicissitude of the past three decades in the area. According to him, “Those living in the Machanping Mountains are mostly immigrants. They abide by the local rules and never stir up trouble.”

Later, through more home visits, I learned that the new immigrants purchased their houses from indigenous residents. And for the past decades, there have been no arguments over land transfer between Machanping’s indigenous and immigrant population.

2. The local government should help the new immigrants solve the Hukou problem which has been troubling them.

3. For those who have Hukou registered in their hometown but wish to settle in Machanping, the local government should allow them to transfer their Hukou here for unified management.

4. A Committee of Social Work or similar institutions should be set up for supervising  local public security, civil affairs, and education departments on administrative management.


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