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 to. 

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 University, Shenyang.

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