○ Many towns in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, which stands on the border between China and North Korea, are rapidly losing their young people and becoming "hollow villages"
○ The residents have left because of a variety of reasons, such as scarce job opportunities and security worries. But hollow villages pose more of a threat in border regions than they do in the interior
○ Local governments have started projects in an attempt to recruit residents to head back to build this region, but their efforts have not been fruitful
Jin Jingnan walks towards one of the buildings in his historical recreation in Bailong village, Jilin Province. During the off-season, the village is silent. Photo: Li Hao/GT
An elderly lady stands in Sanhe, a hollow village that's lost most of its young residents. Photo: Li Hao/GT
As soon as one walks into Sanhe, a town in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Northeast China's Jilin Province, the desolation is plain to see. When entering the town, the Global Times reporter stumbled upon an activity center with its rusty sign fallen onto the hard dirt below. Some elderly men were sitting inside playing cards and mahjong, their only task all day long.
The town itself has one main street. Many houses along the main strip have already become dilapidated. The Global Times reporter passed by a bank with its doors locked, a home with broken windows and dust-covered furniture, and a small hardware shop with open doors but no visible staff.
There are traces of government efforts to promote tourism and local businesses. The town is close to two ports that trade with North Korea, one of which is actually visible from Sanhe, the other about an hour of drive east in Tumen. Yet despite its proximity to industry, Sanhe is an example of the "hollow villages" that line the border between China and North Korea.
The problem of hollow villages has existed for years all throughout rural China. But in border regions, local governments have put extra effort into bringing residents back to keep the regions occupied for security reasons. However, their efforts have not been entirely successful.
When the Global Times reporter visited, some elderly women were gathered outside one of only two restaurants in town, chatting. One of them told the Global Times that the town has only about 100 households left, both of Han and Korean ethnicity, and that most of Sanhe's young people have left the town to work in the cities or in South Korea, with only middle-aged and senior residents remaining.
A middle-aged woman surnamed Piao said her daughter has left for work. In fact, Piao has moved away as well, only coming back occasionally to visit old friends and run a few errands.
The town is situated across the Tumen River from Hoeryong, a North Korean city. From a high-up vantage point inside the town, one can see trucks lined up on a bridge into North Korea.
There's a square at the vantage point, as well as a pagoda, with a sign that reads "river-watching loft," and a restaurant sat next to the square. Media reported the local government built the square in 2012, hoping to attract tourism. But the Global Times reporter didn't see anybody there, not even the exercising seniors that seem to populate nearly every square in China. A few soldiers sat in the restaurant eating, and the restaurant owner said her shop sells no souvenirs, only living necessities.
The atmosphere of the town is hardly welcoming. There's tight security all around Sanhe and as the Global Times team traveled into the town, soldiers checked IDs and asked the purpose and destination of each passenger in detail. The Global Times reporter saw signs on the Chinese side along the river that read "no taking photos, no shouting and no throwing things at the other side" and soldiers checked everybody's camera on the way out to make sure no candid snaps were taken of the other side.
Sanhe's remnants are aware of killings committed by North Koreans in China in the past few years and North Korea's nuclear and missile experiments. Because of such towns' proximity to North Korea, there have been several incidents in the past where North Koreans crossed over to steal, sometimes killing Chinese citizens in the process. The most recent murder happened in 2015 in Helong.
Such events have made some residents angry and cautious towards North Korea, while before many, especially those of Korean ethnicity were once happy to help defectors. One elderly woman even blamed a flood last September on the North Koreans, saying it was caused by the other side opening a dam to let water out, which led to the Tumen overflowing, destroying most of the roads and some houses in Sanhe.
An empty cattle breeding station sits in Sanhe. Photo: Li Hao/GT
One man's village
Sanhe is a typical town along the border in so far as it's rapidly losing its young people. Quan Xinzi, a professor of ethnology at Yanbian University, said the trend has been going for years.
Many border region farmers who are ethnic Koreans choose to work in Chinese big cities or in South Korea because of their natural language advantage. After making money, they don't choose to come back to the villages and instead buy houses in the big cities. She said the trend is common in rural villages across China, but if border region becomes empty, it can pose a security threat.
In these villages, there are some grassroots efforts to bring people back. Jin Jingnan, a 65-year-old ethnic Korean, has been trying for years to revive his hometown.
He lives in Bailong village near the city of Tumen, a port that trades with North Korea. He told the Global Times that Bailong was one of the earliest gathering points for his Korean ancestors when they traveled north from the Korean peninsula. As proof, he points to several residential homes that are hundreds of years old.
Jin strives to preserve traditional Korean culture and bring back the younger members of his community.
"There aren't many left now, they are all working in the city, or in South Korea," he said.
Jin used to work in South Korea with his family as well. In 2009, his brother bought an old house in Bailong that turned out to belong to a Korean tribe over 100 years ago. He decided then to recreate the homes and lifestyles of a tribe that once existed in the village.
Over the years, Jin has spent all his savings on building this project. He also went around collecting artifacts to put in a museum in the village, such as kimchi jars; arts and crafts; and black-and-white photos of the area from the early 20th century.
"I hope all the Bailong villagers, including the young, who are working away from the village, can come back and work here," Jin said. But right now, it's just a distant hope.
This year, Jin expects 80,000 tourists to come see the tribe, which in busy seasons is filled with villagers dressed as their ancestors in performances and making special foods. But he says they money they spend in Bailong is barely enough to pay the project's bills and its workers' salaries.
During the off-season, the village is still desolate. A wooden bar blocks the entrance to the "tribe," material for unfinished guest houses is scattered on the ground and there's not a person in sight for miles.
It's obvious that in Yanbian, many local governments have started construction projects to try and revive the economy as well as convincing locals to come back to repopulate villages.
News portal Ifeng.com reported that in a 2014 meeting, the mayor of Longjing said the city is cooperating with the outside, mentioning that a bridge from Sanhe to Hoeryong, North Korea is listed in the country's national plan.
Data show Sanhe imports iron powder, ore and seafood from North Korea and exports food, oil and electric appliances. But given the current situation, especially with the UN sanctions on North Korea, the border trade cannot be counted on to bring prosperity to the surrounding areas in the short term.
The Global Times reporter visited Fangchuan, a village to the northeast of Yanbian at the intersection of Russia, North Korea and China. Media reported that government built new houses for the villagers and established centers to guide them into coming back home to work in fruit plantations or tourism, to increase their income.
In the last two years, nearly 100 of Fangchuan's 120 residents who went outside to find work have returned to the village. Jin Wange is one of them, a 56-year-old ethnic Korean, who came back four years ago to invest in fishing and growing apples.
But when Global Times reporter visited, the village was empty. A villager said most of the residents had gone to nearby rivers to catch fish that day. Rows of government-built houses stand in the village, neat and tidy. The village also serves as a tourism center when the busy season comes, usually around May.
Quan acknowledges there have been government efforts but says the scale is still too small. She has talked to workers in South Korea on research trips, who say work there is hard also and their only purpose is to make money.
"If the border region were developed enough, why would they leave?" she said.
A team of electricians fix some wires at Sanhe. Photo: Li Hao/GT
A deserted bank stands in Sanhe. A pear seller's number is written on its wall. Photo: Li Hao/GT
A photo taken through the window of a deserted house in Sanhe shows dusty furniture and rusty appliances. Photo: Li Hao/GT
A man walks through the empty streets of Sanhe. He said he's from out of town and only came to visit friends. Photo: Li Hao/GT
The sign of an activity center has fallen on the ground. Photo: Li Hao/GT
An elderly man sits in the activity center, watching others play mahjong. Photo: Li Hao/GT
A woman rides a bike in front of a deserted building. Photo: Li Hao/GT
A man gets off a bus in Sanhe. Photo: Li Hao/GT
Women stand around chatting in front of a small clothing shop in Sanhe. Piao (left), a middle-aged woman, says she moved away a couple of years ago and is in town to run errands. Photo: Li Hao/GT
A man grinds corn in his house. Photo: Li Hao/GT
As part of his project, Jin Jingnan restored the old house that belonged to a Korean tribe in Bailong village. Photo: Li Hao/GT
Jin sits in the old house. He decorated the house in a traditional Korean manner. Photo: Li Hao/GT
Jin points to a black-and-white photo in his collection that shows Bailong village at the beginning of the 20th century. Photo: Li Hao/GT