apartments in xishuangbanna prefecture in yunnan province

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

apartments in xishuangbanna prefecture in yunnan province
Property developers are cashing in on the clean lung boom, building apartments in Xishuangbanna prefecture in Yunnan province. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Jaded urbanites keen to outrun hustle and bustle of country’s big smoke put down roots near border with Myanmar and Laos

January 10, 2018 — It was on 3 January last year, days after Beijing’s last major airpocalypse, that Ji Feng began to 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 1,600 miles from Beijing’s toxic climes, Ji coughed up 460,000 yuan (£52,000) for a two-bedroom flat 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 don’t miss the urban life,” he said. “And now we’ve moved here, the chances of us going back are slim. For me, life’s better here.”

xishuangbanna prefecture, near china’s border with laos and myanmar
Xishuangbanna prefecture, near China’s border with Laos and Myanmar, has become a refuge for jaded urbanites. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

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.

President Xi Jinping 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, according to Greenpeace. But many cities still endure hazardous smog episodes that are blamed for up to a million premature deaths each year.

moved to jinghong to escape beijing’s pollution and its people
Ji Feng and his wife, Liu Bing, moved to Jinghong to escape Beijing’s pollution and its people. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

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 gîtes 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’s really good; there are no chemical factories and we have tropical forest,” boasted Li Rongrong, a sales agent, as she showed off mansions in a soon-to-open compound called Rivulet Villas.

Li Yanjun, a budding estate agent, 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’re trying to sell a property to someone from Beijing,” the 35-year-old joked, 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 multistorey car parks.

the stampede of tourists and developers has transformed jinghong’s skyline over the past decade
The stampede of tourists and developers has transformed Jinghong’s skyline over the past decade. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

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 will 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,” said Li. “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’s too big, and has too many tall buildings. I don’t like it.”

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.”

But Jin, 37, said he regularly hosted 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 your children stay in Beijing they will not [get better].” During 2016’s airpocalypse, “a lot of people came here to buy houses”, he said.

a budding jinghong estate agent says his city is booming as developers pour in
Li Yanjun, a budding Jinghong estate agent, says his city is booming as developers pour in. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

Li, the estate agent, 35, said he had mixed feelings about the changes. As the first member of a family of rubber tappers to go to university, he had benefited directly from two decades of development. But such growth was “a double-edged sword”: 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 his life in mega-cities, including a year in São Paulo, Brazil (population 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 don’t know – maybe forever,” he replied, before correcting himself: “Probably.”


guardian_64 by Tom Phillips | The Guardian