Qi Lihe district sits awkwardly on the outskirts of Lanzhou and is the most destitute area of this heavily polluted industrial city in northwest China. The Shanghai to Ürümqi express train regularly steams through the district, rattling the makeshift homes along the track and slicing a divide between the shantytowns and the modern sprawl of high-rise apartment blocks and shopping malls. These developments have begun to sprout up as Lanzhou attempts to compete with the prosperous boom of China’s other provincial capitals.
In recent years there has been a steady surge in the number of migrant families arriving to the city from their remote rural villages in the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture; a homeland for the Hui and Dongxiang Muslim minorities, situated four hours north of the capital.
The Hui’s ancestors were Silk Road traders, largely of Arab and Persian descent, who first came to China in the 7th Century. The Dongxiang are closely related to the Mongolians and as an independent ethnic group they arose through contact with Central Asians who converted them to Sunni Islam in the 13th century.
For hundreds of years the Hui and Dongxiang have farmed the arid and bleak land surrounding their ancestral villages. However, in recent years, desertification has deemed this once workable landscape infertile, forcing many farmers and their families to seek a better existence in Lanzhou.
Life for these migrant families in the provincial capital remains extremely difficult, as they live in abject poverty. Economic and educational marginalisation has greatly impacted on the community, as its residents are unable to enjoy the same privileges as the majority Han residents of the city.
As poor rural farmers living on the edge of society, the majority struggle to gain official Lanzhou residency from the local government. This means they cannot visit hospitals for the most basic of medial care and they have very little hope of job security and therefore, no regular income. And many of the children of the district are unable to attend local schools, as their parents cannot afford to send them.
As desertification continues to swallow up the countryside of Gansu Province and rural communities continue to disperse to the bigger cities for survival, this pattern of economic and environmental migration will continue to rise. Existing ecological problems will be compounded and the desperate plight of these people will continue.
Stephen JB Kelly