Culture Lifestyle

Is There a Rust Belt in China?

From another perspective, although employees of state-owned enterprises have lost their leisurely life of "I'm gonna get some beers", economic reform has brought a good life to more Chinese people.

In 2019, a Chinese pop song “Wild Wolf Disco” using the original melody of Finnish creator Vilho Ihaksi went viral in China. Songwriter Gem, a rapper, was born in Changchun, Jilin Province, China in 1986.

If you are not a native Chinese, it can be said that this song is of no value at all. Using the melodies of other authors, the lyrics are straightforward and colloquial, and the technical part is not outstanding. Author Gem said it took him only two days to write the song, suggesting that it was really fast-food music. 

However, this rough song has widely resonated in China, especially in the northeast region described in the song, where the vivid description in the lyrics deeply touches the people of Northeast China. This vivid observation and description benefits from the fact that the author Gem himself is a native of the Northeast and has personally experienced the decline of the Northeast.

The once prosperous state-owned economy

The northeast is the old industrial base of China, but for the whole world, the northeast is only a very young zone. Because of its high latitude and difficult living conditions, there are usually only some ethnic minority activities in Chinese history that take fishing and hunting as a way of life, such as the Manchu ruler of the Qing Dynasty. However, like the Mongols who once ruled China, the Manchus chose the traditional life style and cultural system of ancient China after they came to the heart of China. Therefore, in the whole Qing Dynasty, although the Northeast was the birthplace of the Manchu rulers, it also did not get a good development.

The invasion and occupation of the Japanese army brought profound disasters to the residents of the Northeast, but on the other hand, in order to meet the needs of Japan, the industry and infrastructure of the Northeast also made some progress at this time-although these advances were achieved through the cruel exploitation of the residents of the Northeast. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, as many as two generations of Chinese responded to the call of the Beijing government and moved to Northeast China, developing the Northeast into an important grain producing area and industrial base in China.

The Northeast reached the pinnacle of its economic prosperity during this period. When China has not thoroughly explored the role of private enterprises in the economy, the state-led mode of production in Northeast China seems to be very effective. Although the northeast workers are only ordinary workers and are engaged in specific jobs that only go to work on time in the factory, fixed and reasonable working hours, stable income and benefits other than wages are the envy of most Chinese at the same time.

A typical northeast street view

More importantly, the job itself is very stable. For a long time, China’s state-owned enterprises bear huge social responsibilities, not just the pursuit of profits. In order to protect the interests of workers, state-owned enterprises will hardly fire their workers. If a person works in a state-owned enterprise, he will not have to worry about his life for the rest of his life. Moreover, for a long time, these state-owned enterprises almost constitute the core of the northeast society, and they dominate the operation of the whole society. For example, a person who gets a stable job in a state-owned enterprise usually means that his family, especially his children, can also get a stable job in the state-owned enterprise-and this is the most enviable reason for the employees of the state-owned enterprise.

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Outside the northeast, state-owned enterprises have had a similar history in other parts of China, but rarely form a social form dominated by state-owned enterprises like the northeast. Even so, employees of state-owned enterprises were generally envied. Similar to the “Wolf Disco” mentioned at the beginning of the article, other Chinese songs describe similar scenes. For example, although relatively minority, the song “Kill that Shijiazhuang Man“, which is generally recognized as a higher artistic achievement, describes a similar scene:

I get off work at six o’clock in the evening.
Take off the clothes of the pharmaceutical factory.
My wife is cooking porridge.
I’m gonna grab some beers.

These lyrics describe the lifestyle of a state-owned enterprise worker in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, who gets off work at 6 o’clock every day, leads a leisurely life and can have a drink without pressure. The Chinese saying “I’m gonna grab some beers” usually means to have a drink with a few friends, which was already a very good life for Chinese people in the 1990s.

However, in the song “Kill that Shijiazhuang Man”, the following lyrics immediately changed the atmosphere of the whole song:

Live like this for 30 years.
Until the building collapsed.
The darkness in the depths of the clouds.
Drown the landscape at the bottom of my heart.

Struggle for survival

These lyrics describe the reform of China’s state-owned enterprises in the 1990s. The Chinese government has decided to pay more attention to economic development and require state-owned enterprises to improve economic efficiency, which is largely due to the widespread material shortage and soaring prices in China in the early 1990s.

A serious problem brought about by the reform of state-owned enterprises is that state-owned enterprises have decided to eliminate some of their inefficient workers, as private enterprises usually do. If that’s all right, the truth is that some enterprises and even some industries as a whole show poor economic benefits, so their employees– even if they don’t make mistakes at all– face elimination, that is, unemployment.

This is a problem faced by state-owned enterprises all over China, but for the northeast, it is much more than that. Because as mentioned above, the northeast state-owned enterprises are simply the backbone of society, many cities are designed by the Republic as “single-function” cities, a city has only one or a few industries. As a result, when some industries are in crisis or even face complete elimination, the bankruptcy of a state-owned enterprise often means unemployment among young people in the city-which was almost unthinkable in the eyes of employees of state-owned enterprises in Northeast China, who were used to “performing their own duties”.

In such a city with a thin industry and a single function, the fact that a person is unemployed from one industry often means that there is no other industry to provide jobs for him at all. Mass unemployment is bound to bring severe social unrest, and after widespread worries, appropriate compensation measures have not yet emerged (or may not be), and the tide of unemployment has occurred.

Although the initial reform of state-owned enterprises has brought optimization to China’s economic structure to a certain extent, it is undeniable that this is a very painful and tragic history. Employees of state-owned enterprises have lost everything described above: reasonable working hours, stable income, benefits other than wages, and automatic access to all these rights by their families and children. To make matters worse, as many enterprises and industries face overall elimination, these workers who lack other skills are very difficult to find employment, and they have to fall into widespread poverty and even despair.

When it flourished as a granary and heavy industry base, Northeast China was jokingly called the “eldest son of the Republic”. Today, Northeast China is ridiculed as “the abandoned son of the Republic”. As the lyrics say, “live in experience until the building collapses.” Facts have proved that the experience of the planned economy and the small society of large state-owned enterprises has failed to bring eternal happiness to the employees of former state-owned enterprises.

Welcome tomorrow

However, the booming Chinese economy has brought a new turn for the people in the northeast. Today, people in the Northeast have taken root all over the country, and they are even particularly famous for two industries: barbecue and web-streaming. There is a joke that, nowadays, barbecue is the “heavy industry” of the northeast, while the web-streaming is the “light industry” of the northeast.

There is no doubt that these new jobs are also brought about by China’s economic development. As ordinary Chinese became richer, Chinese consumption of meat and alcohol began to soar, which increased opportunities for the catering industry. Northeastern people run kebab businesses across the country, but it was not until some gourmet documentaries featured northeast barbecue, such as Jinzhou Barbecue, that consumers across China realized that many kebab restaurants were run by northeastern people.

To a certain extent, northeastern people living and working all over the country are actually forced by the tide of unemployment brought about by the reform of state-owned enterprises. In fact, today’s northeast, with slow economic development and a lack of new industries, has been in a state of population net outflow-young people in the northeast think that other cities can give them better jobs.

But on the other hand, this passive population flow scattered the people of the Northeast to all parts of China, and also spread the culture of the Northeast. Compared with Chinese in other regions, people in the Northeast have experienced a relatively rich life, and the local culture determines that they prefer meat, which makes them excellent barbecue promoters. After China’s rapid economic development, the pressure on wage earners in big cities has increased, which has made them more fond of barbecue and drinking as a pastime, and made Chinese people who used to eat less meat gradually understand and adapt to the northeast style of “eating meat in large chunks”.

When eating kebabs, Chinese people eat a lot more meat than usual.

From another perspective, although employees of state-owned enterprises have lost their leisurely life of “I’m gonna grab some beers”, economic reform has brought a good life to more Chinese people.

The web-streaming is not only an opportunity for northeasters, but also reasonable to a great extent: northeast dialect is a very special dialect in Chinese. Although it is highly identifiable, it has all the interests and characteristics of a dialect, but it is also very easy to understand, and any Chinese who has not learned the Northeast dialect can easily understand it. In southern China, although many dialects have their own characteristics, the pronunciation of these southern dialects is very different from that of Putonghua. In fact, northerners in China cannot communicate with many southerners who only speak dialects. But the northeast dialect does not have this difficulty.

In addition, there was a northeast artist named Zhao Benshan who promoted northeast culture to the whole country. Many performances by Zhao Benshan and his team, as well as his students at the Chinese Spring Festival Gala, have become the common memory of three generations or more Chinese. In addition to the Spring Festival Gala, the TV dramas, films and offline theaters created by Zhao Benshan’s team have promoted a lot of culture in Northeast China to all Chinese.

Zhao Benshan, a household name in China

Therefore, if we say that the northeast culture is the Chinese local culture that the Chinese people are most familiar with, I would very much agree with it. I think to a certain extent, this has brought convenience for northeasters to participate in web-streaming.

Nowadays, people in the northeast like to retire in the warm south. Many people in the northeast will choose to buy a property on Hainan Island to escape the cold winter in the northeast. In fact, in Sanya, Hainan, because there are so many northeasters, there is really a “Harbin Public Security Bureau Sanya Police Station” to manage those northeasters who are temporarily living in Hainan. After getting out of the haze of the 1990s, people in the Northeast have gradually found a new way of life in China.

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