March 27, 2010
This excerpt is part of a larger feature I wrote that was published by The Atlantic in November 2009. To read the introduction and access descriptions of the other eight “nations” of China, click here.
THE RUST BELT(Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang)
Territory: 801,553 km2 (8% of total)
Population: 109 million (8% of total)
Per Capita GDP: $3,724 (#5 of 9)
Exports as % of GDP: 15%Net Trade Balance (ex-China): $5 billion surplus
Just over a century ago, northeast China—known to the outside world as Manchuria—was a wilderness of dark forests and frigid snow-swept plains. Its only inhabitants were a few hunting and fishing tribes. The foremost of these was the Manchu, which conquered and ruled China as its last imperial dynasty. The arrival of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1898 changed everything, unleashing a flood of migrants and pitting Russia against Japan in a battle to dominate the region. The Japanese prevailed, and in 1931, they made Manchuria part of their empire. They introduced industrial-scale farming and built mines, steel mills, and factories.
After the war, the Northeast (Dongbei in Chinese) was the first of the Nine Nations captured by the Communists, and the region became a bastion of state-owned heavy industry. Its workers were the socialist elite, enjoying cradle-to-grave benefits and an “iron rice bowl”—jobs guaranteed for life. But in the 1990s, market reform cut the legs out from under the planned economy. Obsolete, inefficient factories were forced to close, throwing 30 million blue-collar workers out in the cold. Once-proud Dongbei became the Chinese version of Flint, Michigan: a Rust Belt of decaying industries with no future.
The central government has launched a campaign to “Revive the Northeast,” but it will take more than ambitious blueprints to bring the Rust Belt back to life. The prospect of an implosion in neighboring North Korea is just one of many uncertainties clouding the region’s future. But the people here are survivors. Famous for their rustic manners and boisterous camaraderie—washed down with 120-proof grain alcohol—they embody the fiery spirit of the Dongbeihu, the Siberian tiger. Adapting that spirit to the 21st Century will require new ways of thinking. The port city of Dalian, for instance, is emerging as a business process outsourcing center aimed at the Japanese market. If Rust Belt residents notice the irony of inviting Japanese investors back to revive their former colony, they’re not saying it out loud.