“It has been a long time since we last met, and I hope it will be a long time before we have to part.”
In his address to the 2018 Boao Forum for Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping quoted this line from an old Hainanese folk song. Less than a week later, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced that Hainan, an island province roughly the size of Taiwan located in the South China Sea, would be transformed into a Free Trade Port (FTP) by 2025, making it a central node of China’s economy. But despite its purported economic benefits, the CCP’s new initiative reveals a darker side to state-sponsored gentrification that threatens to upend the lives of thousands of Hainan’s natives.
Situated between the FTPs of Hong Kong and Singapore, Hainan has historically held limited commercial importance. Though foreign investment and immigration to Hainan have steadily increased in the last 30 years, it was not until the Hong Kong protests of 2018 that President Xi saw the need for a new international port in a region with stricter party control.
Hailed as a stroke of strategic and commercial brilliance, President Xi’s initiative seeks to strengthen ties between mainland China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by making Hainan an attractive destination for foreign firms. Alongside a reduction of income taxes and tariffs, the CCP’s policies seek to expand Hainan’s tourism industry by legalizing limited types of gambling, constructing the largest duty-free shopping malls in the world, and supporting the growing surfing industry with expansive coastal development.
However, for some of Hainan’s locals, the transformation of the island into an FTP may prove catastrophic. Tucked in the inlets of the southeastern coast of Hainan, communities of a little-known ethnic minority continue their lives almost entirely at sea. The Shuǐshàng of Xincun Bay traverse the dark waters at night, returning from work to sell their catches at dawn. Their village is unconventional—a sprawling lattice of floating wooden docks connects hundreds of homes to schools, banks, and shops with most citizens rarely setting foot on dry land. Through centuries of cultural isolation and ingenious construction, Shuǐshàng people have found independence on the water, but with state-sponsored gentrification looming, their traditional way of life is coming under threat.
As hotels crop up on the southern shores of Hainan, the local government has begun to demolish a Shuǐshàng floating village to make way for new tourism infrastructure. As of July 2021, Hainanese officials have seized and destroyed around one-third of the Xincun village, with more evictions are scheduled to follow. In an area where forced evictions have historically been marked by brutal police enforcement, locals collectively dread the demolition of their village—an outcome they perceive to be inevitable.
While evictions unmistakably threaten to upend the Shuǐshàng people’s way of life, Hainan’s rapid modernization presents subtler challenges as well. Increased tourism and construction around the island have led to shocking rates of coral depletion, with the coral population dropping by more than 80 percent in the last three decades. The disappearance of seagrass meadows in the same region suggests that the ecosystem which has sustained fishing and sea urchin hunting for centuries has already deteriorated substantially. For Xincun’s fishermen, the effects of the coastline infrastructure development may soon become an existential threat.
The destruction of the floating village unfolds slowly: As new opportunities lure Xincun’s most capable workers to land, others are squeezed out through evictions. Those too young or too old for assimilation are left to fish in increasingly depleted waters, anxiously awaiting the day they will have to abandon their lives at sea. On land, the Shuǐshàng people will face even greater hardships. Unable to bring their fish farms with them, many fishermen will be forced to sacrifice their life savings; with development projects increasing housing prices across Hainan, most will have no choice but to seek refuge in the Chinese interior. If the CCP follows through with its initiative, Shuǐshàng people will have to leave their traditional homes, leaving their communities fractured and creating diasporic conditions.
Despite the clear dangers of Hainan’s rapid gentrification, CCP-controlled media has begun to push an alternative narrative. State conglomerates like the China Global Television Network (CGTN) and Thatsmags stress the dangers and unpredictability of sea life and encourage the movement of the Shuǐshàng people to shore. One CGTN article represents a carefully curated image of the Shuǐshàng Rén as descendants of the Han Chinese thrust into the sea against their will, depicting their rich culture and traditions as important but ultimately at odds with what is best for future generations. The result is a media landscape with frighteningly few accounts of the Shuǐshàng evictions. Keyword searches regarding the issue on Chinese search engines come up empty, and doubt about the demolitions continues to circulate despite satellite imagery revealing that some villages have shrunk dramatically in the last five years.
For President Xi, Hainan’s rapid modernization sets an example for the nation. In his own words, “Just as the radiance of the sun is reflected by a drop of water, the development of a country may be epitomized by an individual region.” If Hainan is his precedent, however, this should stand as a warning for the next Chinese ethnic minority community caught in the crosshairs of President Xi’s developmental aspirations.
For the Party, the issue of Hainan’s Shuǐshàng Rén is a waiting game. As time goes on, commercial development will make it increasingly difficult for humanitarian groups to protect the property rights of the Shuǐshàng people, and the Chinese media’s manipulation will quiet opposition. President Xi continues to reiterate his claims that “reform and opening up [have] given life and prosperity to Hainan.” But, if the needs and desires of the Shuǐshàng people continue to be disregarded, it becomes increasingly clear that President Xi’s promise of prosperity was never meant for them.