China records some of the highest disaster displacement figures worldwide each year, the result of its large population, high exposure and vulnerability to a range of natural hazards that displace millions of people. Storms, floods, earthquakes and landslides triggered more than four million new displacements in 2019, many of them in the form of pre-emptive evacuations.
There is little information about other types of displacement in China. Development projects are likely to displace significant numbers of people, given the country’s unprecedented modernisation and urbanisation, but little publicly available data exists. Nor is data available on displacement triggered by conflict or political violence.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
China regularly records the highest number of new disaster displacements in IDMC’s annual global reports. This is linked to the country’s high level of exposure to hazards, large population, limited progress in reducing the vulnerability of exposed populations and a range of socioeconomic factors. China’s social and economic transformation has been marked by exponential economic growth and development, high levels of rural to urban migration and rapid urbanisation. Many densely populated urban areas are in or near exposed coastal areas and river basins. These factors also mean that the risk of future displacement is very high. The country has the second highest level of prospective risk of average annual displacement (AAD) in the region, according to our disaster risk model.
The most common hazards are extreme sudden-onset hydrological events such as flash and riverine floods. Meteorological hazards, such as tropical storms and mudslides are also frequent. Earthquakes occur less often but are highly destructive and cause significant displacement. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake and related landslides triggered as many as 15 million new displacements. China also experiences an annual monsoon season between May and October.
Rapid urbanisation fuels disaster displacement risk, as in the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province, a low-lying area on the South China Sea coast. The area, once dominated by farmland, has rapidly become the most populous metropolitan area in China, home to around 70 million people. It is made up of nine cities, including the provincial capital Guangzhou, whose population increased from less than a million in 1980 to 11.7 million in 2011. Flooding is common, as occurred in 2016 when typhoon Haima triggered 763,000 evacuations across the province. Climate change is set to increase disaster risk as the sea level rises, tropical storms become more frequent and intense, and flash flooding becomes more common.
Slow-onset hazards such as environmental degradation, water scarcity and drought are increasingly common and have a devastating impact, as illustrated by the drought in Inner Mongolia in 2017, but there are no figures on displacement associated with these phenomena.
China has modernised at an unprecedented rate, shifting from a largely agricultural to an industrial economy in a matter of decades, and development projects also displace people. Infrastructure projects range across all sectors and include the construction of large dams, which is likely to have caused significant displacement. China is home to nearly half of the 50,000 large dams worldwide, including the Three Gorges dam, which is the world’s largest, and is thought to have led to 1.3 million relocations as villages and towns were cleared to make way for the reservoir.
Development projects in the form of disaster risk reduction measures also cause displacement when people are moved out of at-risk areas. The government’s most recent five-year social and economic development plan envisages the relocation of as many as 250 million people into purpose-built urban centres by 2026, many of them from disaster-prone rural regions.
Displacement associated with urban expansion and regeneration is also an issue. The rapid expansion of cities has led to the eviction of people living in nearby agricultural areas, as farmland is turned into residential areas for the vast numbers of people arriving from the countryside. With 59 per cent of the country’s population now living in urban areas, attention has also turned to urban regeneration, particularly in medium and small-sized cities. City-wide clean-ups cause displacement when people are evicted to make way for gentrification projects, with low-income migrant workers living in peripheral, undesirable areas particularly vulnerable.
Displacement associated with conflict and violence may also be an issue in some parts of the country, but no data is available. Political protests and self-immolations in the autonomous region of Tibet and neighbouring Qinghai province have been met with a violent government crackdown, and tensions run high in Xinjiang province between the Muslim Uighur minority on the one hand and China’s Han majority and the government on the other. The area has become increasingly militarised in recent years and state repression is on the rise, the most concerning example being the mass detention of people in internment camps.
Typhoon Lekima triggered two million new displacements in August 2019, putting it among the disasters to trigger most displacement globally during the year. The storm also destroyed 15,000 homes and caused around $7 billion in economic losses. Flooding during the rainy season, which took place between June and July, triggered almost 1.6 million evacuations in at least eight provinces. A 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province in June, destroying 3,500 homes and triggering around 95,000 displacements.
Disaster displacement often takes the form of compulsory pre-emptive evacuations based on meteorological monitoring, vulnerability mapping and early warning systems. Earthquakes are notoriously difficult to predict, but early warning systems have been developed that give people up to a minute to run for safety. Evacuations then take place after the disaster has struck.
The Chinese authorities tend to avoid mass evacuation orders for hydrological and meteorological hazards, because evacuating vast numbers from densely populated areas can cause traffic chaos and gridlock, hindering people’s movement and relief efforts. Instead they direct pre-emptive evacuation orders toward groups identified as particularly at-risk. For the arrival of typhoon Talim in Fujian in September 2017, for example, these included people living in areas exposed to high winds and mudslides, and near construction sites where they might be in the path of flying debris. Sports stadiums and school buildings are often used as temporary shelters.
Our study of reports published between 2014 and 2016 on World Bank-funded development projects found that 36,000 people were at risk of displacement across 41 projects, from Xinjian in the far west to Guangdong in the south-east. The projects ranged from water and sanitation infrastructure to road building and improvements. They also included reconstruction after major earthquakes, such as those that struck Sichuan province in 2008 and 2013. These examples show the diversity of projects that have the potential to trigger displacement, but the number of people displaced or at risk of displacement is likely to be much higher.
Despite the high number of evacuations triggered by disasters in China, there is little information on the social, health and economic impacts people face when they are evacuated, but their situations vary according to the length of time they are displaced. They are initially given temporary shelter in schools and sport centres and are then moved to temporary housing and eventually purpose-built apartments if they are unable to return.
More detailed information is available for some large-scale disasters, such as the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Reconstruction work was extremely quick, with almost all of 1.5 million damaged rural dwellings, and 78 per cent of homes for 259,000 urban families rebuilt by March 2010, less than two years after the quake struck. A full return to normality was still a challenge for IDPs, however, with people in rural areas particularly vulnerable having lost not only their homes but also access to agricultural land. Displaced farmers in some counties received livelihood support in the form of vocational training and loans to start small businesses.
The few case studies that exist on displacement associated with development projects point to a range of adverse impacts on those affected. IDMC’s study of the construction of the Manwan dam in Yunnan province in 1996 showed that the 7,260 people resettled to make way for the project experienced challenges in terms of infrastructure and utilities, housing, livelihoods and social networks. None received enough compensation to build homes in their resettlement areas, and some families resettled on unsuitable land were displaced again by landslides. Our study is only small, but it points to the problems that can occur when social impact surveys are not conducted at the start of a project and support for those displaced is limited.
The complexity of the drivers, dynamics and patterns of displacement in China means there are many significant research gaps on the phenomenon, with the exception of that associated with sudden-onset disasters. Data on the latter comes from situation reports published by the Ministry of Emergency Management on the disaster events themselves and corresponding evacuations, relocations and emergency relief efforts. Information is widely available at the provincial and municipal level. Other sources we use for our estimates include English-language Chinese newspapers, which are helpful in understanding the context of certain disasters and triangulating figures.
It is much more challenging to find comprehensive data on displacement associated with slow-onset disasters and development projects. The latter subject is broad. It involves both public and private stakeholders across a wide range of sectors, and projects are often politically sensitive. There is no government source of consolidated data, but some estimates can be obtained from reports of large multilateral funding organisations such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. These typically publish resettlement plans before a project is implemented, including the number of people at risk of being displaced. It is, however, difficult to ascertain how many people were actually displaced once a project has been completed.
There is also little or no data on displacement associated with conflict, or even on the political tensions and violence that may cause it. Nor is the phenomenon officially recognised.
Disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation policies, which are integrated into the government’s five-year plans, are relevant to internal displacement. In response to the large number of disasters China experiences each year, significant investments have been made in improving early warning systems, streamlining evacuation plans and making buildings more resistant. This includes early warning systems for earthquakes developed after the 2008 Sichuan disaster.
Annual figures for displacement associated with sudden-onset disasters are often very high, but this reflects the large number of often pre-emptive evacuations carried out. These have contributed to a reduction in the number of deaths caused by disasters, particularly hydro-meterological events.
The government has made significant improvements in providing compensation for people affected by development projects, and some policies go further than required by the World Bank. These include mandatory social impact assessments (SIAs) to be carried out before the start of a project, and a "resettlement with development" strategy. The latter is based on the idea that as well as compensating people affected by a project for the loss of their homes and livelihoods, investments should be made in services, infrastructure and economic opportunities in resettlement areas to ensure their living standards are not only sustained but improved. These safeguards are important considering the huge number of current and planned development projects in China.