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Friday, July 31, 2015
China’s “Northeast Phenomenon”
Here is my interpretation of China’s “dongbei xianxiang (northeast
phenomenon).” As a follow up to my
previous post, Beijing is my favorite city in China, but the northeast is the
most special.I first studied Chinese in
2001 in Harbin, where the most standard Mandarin is spoken according to the
language program I joined, and where I hoped to also deepen my understanding of
my native Korean.
While the changes in Beijing since then are immediately
noticeable, things seem more or less the same up in the northeast.More than ten years into China’s “Northeast
Revitalization” plan, domestic debate has indeed centered on a new “northeast phenomenon”
of economic stagnation after Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang ranked among the
country’s slowest growing regions last year.Although most people in Shenyang claim that the northeast development
plan no longer exists, Xi Jinping was in Changchun and Shenyang this month to
promote his own plans to re-revitalize the northeast.
Northeast China bears the burdens of an “elder brother” that
make it so special.Named China’s “eldest
son” and “old industrial base” from the socialist era, the northeast is first
an “elder brother” to China’s other regions.A consensus among northeast officials and businesses is that their
economic problems are primarily structural, including the dominance of
state-owned, heavy industry.But this
has been the northeast’s biggest excuse for the past three decades.Most people especially outside the region see
local conservatism as the primary source of the northeast’s stagnation.Rather than policy constraints from Beijing,
local governments are not willing to open up the economy.Or as some northeasterners will admit, people
are just lazy.
Others will point to the northeast’s foreign neighbors.Across the border from the northeast is China’s
“little brother,” North Korea, who is too busy making nuclear weapons to cooperate.Yet China’s northeast is one of the few
places where North Korea and South Korea co-exist.While the UNDP’s Tumen Development Programme
in the 1990s marked one of the earliest official meetings between the two
Koreas, North and South Korean businesses operate side by side in Xita,
Shenyang’s Korea town.But outside
northeast China, even if local leaders wanted to open, there is no-one to open
Perhaps for the above reasons, Beijing is just not
interested in revitalizing the northeast anymore.Xi Jinping seems preoccupied right now with
promoting his “One Belt, One Road” elsewhere.But the northeast is still stuck on the very problems that Hu Jintao
sought to address in 2003, and remains a puzzling phenomenon worth studying.
In Xita, Shenyang
See-Won Byun, Ph.D. Political Science Sigur Center 2015 Asian Field Research Fellow Peking University, Beijing, and Liaoning