China’s Ethnic Yi Struggle Against Poverty

For Jisi Lazuo, the torch festival in her village in southwest China should be a celebration involving colorful ethnic clothes and eating freshly slaughtered pig.

Instead, it’s a time of stress.

“In my heart I always get worried when the torch festival comes along,” said Jisi, 37, who supports a family of two grandparents and four children.

“Traditional clothes are quite expensive, but for my own kids I can only buy whatever I can get,” she said.

Jisi belongs to the isolated Yi ethnic community. They have a distinct language and culture, and are among the poorest in China.

Most live in Liangshan, a mountainous district in the southwestern province of Sichuan and one of 14 areas of “concentrated poverty” identified by the central government.

Average incomes in Liangshan are just 27 percent of the national average, official data shows.

An ambitious poverty reduction campaign is seeking to change this, ensuring by 2020 that no one is living in poverty — defined by the government as less than 2,300 yuan a year.

China has lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty over the past few decades, but doing the same for groups like the Yi poses a different set of challenges.

“A lot of that poverty is not as easily accessible for the government,” said Ben Westmore, a senior economist at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“It’s people who live in mountainous areas who are not very well connected, or they’re more dispersed at the provincial level across the prefectures,” he said.

From road building to subsidies, the central government has spent large amounts of money on poverty relief in places like Liangshan.

In 2016, the Liangshan government distributed 940 million yuan ($139 million) in basic income assistance for the poorest in the region, according to the government website.

Officials in charge of Liangshan’s anti-poverty campaign declined to comment on the programs. The State Council poverty alleviation office in Beijing also declined to comment.

While many Yi welcome the state’s help, some question whether cash handouts are sustainable.

“Just giving out money is useless because one day the money will eventually run out,” said Emu Zhiji, one of the few people in his village to receive a university education.

Emu said he hopes to become a sports teacher, something that would be impossible for many Yi. Thirty percent are illiterate, compared to 4 percent nationally, and many do not speak Mandarin, the main language in China. As a result, they have limited options for earning a living beyond farming.

The government has tried to improve access to education for the Yi, but it struggles to recruit teachers to work in such a remote area. Many students battle to keep up with lessons taught in Mandarin.

Emu said more needs to be done to allow the Yi to develop within their own culture if they are to alleviate the poverty and a dependency on government programs.

“If we had better jobs we’d be able to feed and clothe ourselves on our own, but for that we need to be able to use our own language,” he said.

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