The documentary, 'Battle up the Hill' delves into the challenges Butuo County in Sichuan faces - limited access to education, entrenched traditional beliefs that hinder healthcare, and deep-rooted gender inequality that traps women deeper in poverty cycles. Produced by CGTN owned by the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ‘Battle up The Hill’ offers a compelling look at the complexities of poverty alleviation in China while hinting at the larger steps and narrative of the CCP to which it is answerable to.


Nestled in the mountains of Sichuan Province, China, lies Butuo County, where poverty has been a stubborn reality for generations. In the documentary “Battle up the Hill,” we witness this small county’s fight to break free from the shackles of extreme poverty. The documentary delves into the challenges Butuo faces - limited access to education, entrenched traditional beliefs that hinder healthcare, and deep-rooted gender inequality that traps women deeper in poverty cycles. But it also shines light on the determined efforts being made by the government’s push for free education, improved healthcare and encouragement of rural migration. Produced by CGTN owned by the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ‘Battle up The Hill’ offers a compelling look at the complexities of poverty alleviation in China while hinting at the larger steps and narrative of the CCP to which it is answerable to.

The documentary starts with a serene, picturesque landscape of Butuo County, nestled amidst Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture's mountains, starkly contrasting the prosperous Xichang city, just 100 kilometers away. Designated as nationally poverty-stricken, over 37% of Butuo's population lived in extreme poverty by mid-2020, grappling with geographical remoteness, marginalization, and limited access to education and healthcare. The documentary goes on to elaborate on these issues as deeply ingrained challenges to poverty alleviation and progress in Butuo.



Education and Healthcare

The documentary sheds light on the high illiteracy rates and difficulty accessing education in Butuo County through the stories of several residents. Akechizi, a 44-year-old shepherd with five children, exemplifies this struggle. Despite graduating junior school at 23 and becoming a Yi language teacher, his education was cut short due to transportation limitations. Similarly, 17-year-old Jishiyangbing's story highlights the burden placed on left-behind children. He juggles schoolwork, childcare, and farm labor while his parents work far away. His desire for a motorcycle reflects the difficulty of attending school in a remote location. These stories, along with the mention of high dropout rates due to issues faced by left-behind children, paint the picture of a community struggling with education. Furthermore, the documentary emphasizes the language barrier as a significant hurdle. Since most of Butuo's population belongs to the Yi ethnic group, limited proficiency in Mandarin, the national language, restricts access to information, training, and higher education, ultimately hindering job opportunities outside the region.

The interconnected nature of challenges within the community are profound. Limited education impedes residents from grasping the advantages of modern medicine, fostering a reliance on superstitious practices like spiritual healing from Bimoo, a ceremonial master who also serves as a healer in these villages, for health issues, notably concerning ailments like HIV, where early intervention is crucial. The documentary highlights Sega's story, who, contracting HIV through shared needles, initially turned to spiritual healing before seeking medical help. His case illustrates how this issue intertwines with the lack of gainful employment opportunities keeping in mind that Sega who was also a Bimo continued his practice on the villagers due to the decent income it provided. Such traditional beliefs also perpetuate skewed gender roles, as seen in Jishiyangbing's story, where cooking is relinquished to his youngest sister.

The story of Akemolihe, who faces the dilemma of staying or leaving her viillage due to familial financial struggles, further exemplifies this inequality. She was forced into early marriage at 17 due to poverty and had to work to support her family. The documentary shows us the problems Akemolihe and Jishiyangbing face. Akemolihe lives with many mosquitoes, and Jishiyangbing's family cooks and heats their home with a fire pit inside. But the documentary does not talk much about the bigger health problems this might cause. For example, it does not mention how these living conditions could affect the health of the people living there. Even government health measures are brushed over, leaving critical issues unaddressed amidst the poignant narratives of education limitations, early motherhood, and arranged marriages that curtail women's choices. This can be interpreted, what Pupin argues, as a self-identification and formation of an emotional bond with the global audience which diverts one’s attention from the political discourse. Something which does not make someone think, ‘Chinese Government Propoganda’.

Government Initiatives

The documentary sheds light on the government's multi-pronged approach, encompassing initiatives in education and healthcare. It portrays the education domain as a leaky pipeline with patchy fixes. The documentary lays bare a critical flaw in Butuo's education system – a high dropout rate, particularly among left-behind children like Jishuyangbing. While the government's extension of compulsory education to 15 years as opposed to the national average of 9 years of tuition-free education and the "one village, one kindergarten" scheme are commendable steps, they resemble attempts to patch a leaky pipeline. The root causes of dropouts remain unaddressed. As Hu Zidan, director of the Bureau of Education, acknowledges, the language barrier and learning difficulties in early grades lead many to abandon their education in junior school. These early struggles create a foundation of frustration and discouragement, making continued education seem impossible. 

The primary schools in Butuo are shown to be plagued with a perpetual shortage of teachers. In this context, the teacher recruitment program is seen as a positive effort. Still, the documentary directs our attention to the deeper issue – the lack of qualified science teachers, as Lan Jinglian, vice president of Minzu Primary School, mentions. Attracting and retaining educators in a remote location with harsh living conditions requires more than hiring sprees. Long-term solutions that address quality of life, professional development opportunities, and competitive salaries are essential to building a stable and effective teaching force in Butuo.

In terms of healthcare, the government is shown as reaching out to improve healthcare accessibility. A network of doctors providing door-to-door services tackles not just physical ailments but also the issue of entrenched traditional beliefs. The dedicated doctors navigate logistical challenges like difficult terrain and patient anxieties about needles. However, their role extends beyond basic medical care. They act as educators, dispelling myths and promoting scientific understanding about health and disease. The documentary also reveals a crucial missing piece in the government's approach – a lack of focus on dismantling superstitious practices. The Bimo tradition passed down through a closed system with limited access thrives due to a lack of education, particularly among women.

Rural-Urban Migration

Given limited opportunities and access, rural-urban migration takes the shape of a necessary evil with hidden costs. The documentary exposes this double-edged sword in Butuo's fight against poverty. The documentary reveals how remittances from migrant workers like Akemolihe significantly contribute to the local GDP, aligning with the government's broader strategy that encompasses education, job creation programs, relocation initiatives, and social assistance. This strategy positions migration as a key driver of economic development in Butuo and a clear shot at upliftment for the residents of the County. 

However, the documentary also unknowingly portrays the hidden costs associated with this approach. While Zhang, head of the health bureau, emphasizes the transformative power of education, particularly fluency in Mandarin as a gateway to securing better jobs in cities, the interviews reveals the harsh realities faced by migrants like Akemolihe who are restricted to low-wage jobs, social isolation, and without support systems. This begs a critical question: does the documentary promote urban migration as the only viable option for prosperity in Butuo?

The viewer is bound to notice the over-emphasis on migration, which valorizes individuals who migrate to the city, even in the story of Sega, who, towards the end, is shown moving to a new town in search of employment. It lacks focus on equipping the people of Butuo with the knowledge and skills to navigate the modern world and even creating opportunities within the region itself. It fits the Chinese approach of state-sponsored corporate paternalism in rural poverty alleviation, and the popular narrative of what is considered best for the community of Butuo. While the documentary acknowledges the need to dismantle traditional beliefs and empower women, these aspects are not presented as central to the solution.

It's important to acknowledge several limitations of the documentary's perspective. Produced by a state-run media outlet, it does not capture the complete picture. A more critical analysis of the effectiveness of government programs and the experiences of those who may not have benefited as much would provide a more balanced perspective. "Battle Up The Hill" nevertheless concludes on an optimistic note, highlighting government achievements such as the construction of new houses and increased medical personnel in the area. 

However, a more nuanced understanding requires acknowledging not just the aspirations symbolized by the final song, “Standing on top of mountains,” set against the backdrop of the Butuo county, but also the challenges that remain on the path to achieving actual progress for Butuo’s natives with respect to the national targets and the widespread coverage of such programs. The solution must lie beyond emptying the valley that serves as a home to the Yi community.



Alisha is a 2nd year student pursuing Development Studies with a minor in International Relations at IIT, Madras. Her interdisciplinary course offers her a unique perspective on Public Policy and Global Polity issues. She is passionate about China Studies, Economics and Climate and loves to explore the interconnections between the them.

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