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A soaring monument to beauty in China is stirring passions. Mostly anger.
A still-unfinished plaza in front of the statue of Yang Asha, a mythical ancestress, in the Chinese province of Guizhou, Oct. 30, 2020. As China fights to end extreme poverty while also recovering from the economic damage of the coronavirus, the supposed wisdom of building huge statues in poorer areas to grow tourism is coming under harsh scrutiny. Keith Bradsher/The New York Times.

by Keith Bradsher

JIANHE (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Yang Asha smiled serenely down at the craggy emerald landscape, her hand outstretched in welcome. She appeared unmoved by the condemnation her presence has ignited in China; she is, after all, made of gleaming stainless steel and bigger than the Statue of Liberty.

To officials in her corner of China, the statue of Yang Asha, a goddess of beauty, serves as a tribute to the rich culture of the local people and, they hope, a big draw for sightseers and their money. To many others in China, she is another white elephant in a country full of expensive monuments, gaudy tourist traps and wasteful vanity projects that draw money away from real problems.

Those critics point to the statue of Guan Yu, a general from antiquity, in the city of Jingzhou, where he also towers higher than the Statue of Liberty and wields an enormous polearm called the Green Dragon Crescent Blade.

They point to the Jingxingu Hotel, a 24-story wooden building with lots of empty balconies and open spaces but few actual rooms — and it has not accepted guests beyond a few tourists who come to gawk.

They point to the construction of a full-size, $150 million replica of the Titanic in a reservoir deep in China’s interior, 1,200 miles from the ocean.

These projects have always endured some criticism in China. But these days the harsh words resonate. Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, has vowed to eradicate extreme poverty, and some of these projects are in the country’s most impoverished places.

China is also still emerging from the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic early this year. With many people struggling to get their lives back in order, the projects seem like little more than costly burdens on a country where many local and provincial governments are already deeply in debt.

Singling out the $38 million Jingxingu Hotel and the $224 million Guan Yu project, which also included an elaborate base and surrounding park, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development ordered Sept. 29 that communities may not “blindly build large-scale sculptures that are divorced from reality and the masses.”

Chinese government officials have long prized big projects. China now has four-fifths of the world’s 100 tallest bridges, more miles of ultramodern expressways than the U.S. interstate highway system and a bullet train network long enough to span the continental United States seven times. Those projects have employed millions of people and helped fuel the country’s breakneck growth.

But local officials borrowed heavily to fund those projects. Estimates put the amount of local debt as high as $6 trillion, raising fears of financial bombs lurking in the ledgers of far corners of the country.

Beijing has doubled down on further investment spending this year in an initially successful bid to shake off an economic hangover from the coronavirus outbreak in China last winter.

Yet with each passing year, as projects are built in ever more remote places, the economic kick from each project becomes less and less. China is on track this year to add debt equal to four months’ economic output while its economy grows by an amount equal to less than two weeks’ output.

Local government borrowing “is still out of control,” said Gary Liu, an independent economist in Shanghai.

Particularly controversial on Chinese social media are statues built in areas of considerable poverty. Some local officials are following the model of the city of Wuxi, which drew tourists by the busload after it built a 259-foot statue of the Buddha in 1996. But more recent statues lack the same drawing power.

“The people who imitated later are doing nothing more than wasting labor and money,” said Zhou Mingqi, a tourism consultant in Shanghai.

In this environment, online critics seized on the Yang Asha statue when a video of it went viral this autumn. But the statue’s defenders argue that it and the region it represents have more to offer than mindless building.

The statue of Yang Asha stands 216 feet when measured from the hem of her gown to the top of her horned headdress. That is 65 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty’s torch, although New York City’s statue stands on a much larger base.

Yang Asha is the mythical ancestress of the Miao people, an ethnic minority in China closely related to the Hmong of Southeast Asia. The Miao make up the majority of the population of Jianhe, the county in Guizhou province that built the statue.

Her headdress, which incorporates both horns and feathers, is meant to commemorate two Miao groups, and her pale white aspect nods at the Miao’s reputation as skilled silversmiths.

Yang Asha was an extraordinarily beautiful woman who was bullied by dark clouds into marrying the sun, according to local legend. She later deserted the sun in favor of the sun’s brother, the moon, and had to fight to stay with her new suitor, said Luo Yu, a City University of Hong Kong anthropologist who is from Guizhou province.

Predictably, her story became one of class struggle under former Communist Chairman Mao Zedong, said Luo, with Yang Asha fleeing a landlord sun for a moon depicted as a heroic laborer or tenant farmer. In today’s telling, the Chinese state media gloss over the marital infidelity and economic inequality, describing her as a beautiful woman who fought for love.

Jianhe is in a region known for poverty, which has fueled much of the criticism over Yang Asha. The statue itself was erected nearly four years ago, but construction of its surrounding plaza was then quickly suspended in response to online criticism. The site still lacks bathrooms, parking and other basic amenities. An effort began over the summer to finish construction, but that has helped reawaken criticism of the project.

“It’d be so much better to spend the money on alleviating poverty,” said one of the many commentators who have weighed in on social media. “What can a statue like this do?”

The local government says that the statue cost only $13 million, with none of it coming from anti-poverty programs, and helped the town draw 200,000 visitors during a weeklong National Day holiday at the start of October.

Verifying such numbers is difficult. Souvenir vendors at the statue said that about only 100 people might visit the site on a busy weekend day and that most of them have been local residents lately because of the pandemic.

Some say the current criticisms go too far. They contend that affluent people in China’s big cities have become too quick to criticize ethnic minority communities in rural areas for spending money to honor their ancestors and their traditions.

Such critics “have this paternalistic, protective perception of destitute minorities,” said Louisa Schein, a Rutgers University anthropologist who has long studied the Miao.

Local officials dispute the idea that their region is impoverished. The Jianhe area declared early this year that it has raised its last few families out of extreme poverty.

The community itself, like many in rural China, no longer appears impoverished. It has been transformed by remittances from residents who migrated to work in furniture factories and construction sites elsewhere.

Liu Kaimu is one of the many Jianhe residents who joined that migration. He worked in Quzhou, a furniture-making hub in south central coastal China that has attracted large numbers of Miao migrant workers, who have a strong woodworking tradition.

Liu made $750 to $900 a month and received free food and dormitory housing. In 2011, he bought a three-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot apartment for his family in Jianhe for $54,000.

Weeks before the pandemic, Liu, now 35, had decided he would stay in Jianhe. His son, now a freshman in high school, needs his father home more.

So Liu started a small business: a whirling children’s ride of bright purple rockets on the large but still unfinished concrete plaza in front of the Yang Asha statue. Liu said that his take-home income is actually slightly higher than when he was a migrant worker.

Liu is grateful that the statue has given him an alternative to life as a migrant worker.

“What we did was hard toil,” he said. “It’s impossible to do that kind of work again.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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