Tensions rise in China's 'Florida' as snowbirds flock to Sanya

2018-04-03 16:06CGTN Editor: Gu Liping ECNS App Download

As smog lingered over cities in northern China in early March, silver-haired retirees in Sanya, a tropical city in south China's Hainan Province, shared photos of palm-fringed beaches and blue skies.

Over the past 10 years, a growing number of retirees from China's former industrial heartland have emigrated to Sanya. By 2016, over 400,000 retirees – known as "snowbirds" – had relocated to the city, often staying from October to April.

But some local residents are struggling with changes that have accompanied the newcomers.

The influx of seasonal visitors has invigorated the city's property market — one square meter costs 40,000 yuan (6,372 US dollars) on average — same as in Beijing. But for locals, that makes real estate less affordable.

Food prices have also surged, while healthcare facilities are limited and other public services are struggling to keep pace. Clashes between locals and elderly newcomers have taken place, including incidents recorded and uploaded online.

The snowbird trend seems irreversible, but tensions over migration have been a concern for the island for many years and risk being inflamed as it continues to develop.

Let's talk

CGTN brought locals and "snowbirds" together to discuss how Sanya has transformed and the tensions the changes have created.

For some it was their first chance to chat across the aisle, even those who had been living in the same city for a decade.

Incompatible living habits

"The first time I saw locals chewing betel nuts, I thought it was very disgusting," said Xin Jinjuan, a retired college worker from central China's Hubei Province who has spent more than 10 winters in Sanya.

"Exactly. After chewing betel nuts, their mouths turn a deep red, which really scared me," Feng Feng, 61, from northeast China's Heilongjiang Province admitted. "The worst thing is they spit red chewing juice everywhere."

Hainan, which in 2018 marks 30 years since it was designated as a province, has a growing international reputation as a tourist and business destination, boosted by the annual Boao Forum for Asia which attracts big names from around the world. Even as Sanya has transformed, locals have kept the habit of chewing betel nuts.

"There is a reason for that," Hong Jianrong, 35, who was born and raised in Sanya's suburban area Ledong County, replied.

"Betel nuts have been taken as a medicine for over 1,000 years. Everyone chews it to expel wind, kill worms and remove phlegm. It is not because they are addicted to it."

Language barrier

"I've had quarrels with stall owners before. They can be very impatient when they do not understand you," Xin said.

Hong explained that before the snowbirds came, very few Hainanese were fluent in Mandarin. He could not speak the language until he was 11 years old.

"Actually, the local youngsters benefit a lot from the new immigrants. For better business chances, they are 'forced' to learn Mandarin, which is good, to be honest," Hong said.

"That is true," Xin added. "I made friends with my local neighbors, two young ladies. They are very willing to listen to my stories, as they have never left this island. What I said was totally new to them."

City benefits from newcomers

"The fight videos going around online don't paint an accurate picture," said Liu Chengyi, 61, from northeastern Heilongjiang Province. "They highlighted personal tensions and exaggerated them into major conflicts. The misunderstandings have never been that serious."

"We could barely see greenery in the city when we first came. But in the past 10 years, they have made it a wonderland, with coconut trees, clean beaches, and sufficient public constructions."

The two sides agreed that although there have been some strains, the big picture is that newcomers have positively influenced the development of Sanya City.

"Street robbery was very common," Hong continued. "But now, we can walk on the street at 10 p.m. without any concern. We have also seen better medical services, better regulated social rules, and opportunities to use the latest technologies."

Since 2013, snowbirds have been able to use state healthcare insurance for free medical care in Sanya, which used to be only available in their own hometowns.

"I used to bring rice, onions and even shampoo to Sanya when I started my winter holiday here," Xin continued. "But now, all I need is a small backpack. My friends at home say I look like I'm going out shopping when I head to Hainan. Sanya has sufficient food and supplies in the market now. It is not a small fishing village anymore."

"I see myself as Hainanese. There is no division between you and me," said Liu.

"Exactly. Many snowbirds volunteer to pick up trash at the seaside," Xin agreed. "We view Sanya as our new hometown."



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