Make Manchuria great again: Can China’s rust belt be revived?

A factory in Yanji, China, in 2007. Image: Getty.

In 1949, Mao gave China First the role of making China great again from its base in North East China. Ignoring his Soviet advisors, Mao believed that China’s path to prosperity was through heavy industry: that meant building on the industrial base left by the Japanese Empire in Manchuria.

For decades, China First and similar state-owned companies provided secure, well-paid employment to Manchurian workers whose ‘Iron Rice Bowl’ was the envy of the nation. Many of China First’s early recruits were still working there in the 1990s.

Today, things don’t look so good. After a decade of lay-offs, its losses are still growing, and stood at $850m last year. Chairman Wu was found hanged in his office during a corruption investigation in 2015. While the region’s GDP per capita is about average for China, it is in relative decline.  In 1978, China’s north east provinces of Liaoning, Heilongjiang and Jilin were the 4th, 5th and 8th richest. Now they are 14th,21st and 12th. What’s gone wrong?

The administrative divisions of China. Manchuria consists of the three provinces in the far north east. Image: Wikipedia.

Mao’s heavy industrialisation policy may have made Manchuria rich – but since his death, nowhere has followed the Manchurian path to prosperity. Instead, Deng Xiao-Ping’s model had privately-owned textile factories, rather than state-owned steel mills, in the vanguard.

These new factories didn’t come to Manchuria: investors were looking for cheap labour, and Manchuria had the most expensive workers in the country due to its Mao era economic success. Instead, they came, initially, to China’s coasts.

Now those regions that started off as sources of cheap labour for Japanese investors have moved on. Shanghai and Guangzhou are major global financial centres. Hebei Province is the steel capital of the world. So why was Manchuria, which started a few stations down the track, unable to get on the Deng Xiao-Ping train as it passed them by?

Firstly, imagine a combination of what John McDonnell thinks about bankers and what Ian Duncan Smith thinks about welfare claimants: that is how north-easterners are seen by large numbers of other Chinese people.  Most Chinese believe they worked for their own prosperity, but the three north eastern provinces were gifted prosperity by Mao, and now stay afloat via subsidy and corruption. Good Maoists make for bad capitalists. Whether this is fair is beside the point: it deters investment.

Secondly, geography. Being at the crossroads of the Communist world may have been an advantage in 1950; but now it puts Manchuria in the middle of an economic nightmare zone, between the crashing Russian economy and North Korea which keeps on North Koreaing.

Finally, demographics. Even before the One Child Policy of 1982, Manchuria’s fertility rate had fallen below the replacement rate. That policy was also more effective in Manchuria than anywhere else, with fertility rates falling to just 0.75 births per woman by 2010. It’s not surprising that, in the provinces with the highest rates of government employment, more people would obey government policy. On top of this, there has been huge net migration: 2m workers left the north east for southern provinces between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

So, as Lenin asked, what is to be done?

The Chinese government has had two main strategies. First is transport. My hometown of Yanji (about the size of Bristol) boasts several 150mph+ services a day to cities in the region hundreds of miles away, as well as a daily service to Beijing (about as far as Bristol to Berlin).

Over 1,500 miles of highspeed railway has opened in Manchuria in the last 5 years, and more is being built. Buses to smaller towns in the region are cheap, regular and mostly travel along motorways built in the last 20 years.

No doubt this growing connectedness has helped the local economy – but it has not stopped Manchuria falling behind the coastal provinces, largely because new motorways and high speed rail are national megaprojects.

China’s rail network. Click to expand. Image: Howchou/Wikimedia Commons.

The second strategy is keeping the order books of local government-owned factories full. New trains roll off the production lines in Changchun, tanks in Qiqihar and steel pretty much everywhere. However, this has not closed the gap either.

Some have bold plans, but it is not clear they’d be effective. Justin Yifu Lin, former chief economist of the World Bank, argues that the region should target those light industrial businesses that set up on the coast decades ago and are now on the move again looking for cheap labour. He also suggests greater efforts to get workers out of the fields and into the cities.

But it is not really clear why a business owner would opt for remote, moderate wage Manchuria over better located, lower wage provinces further west – nor why farm workers shouldn’t just move south as they have been doing for decades.

Government economist Fan Hengshan hinted in an interview with the China Economic Times that he believes Thatcherite style shock therapy – privatise the state owned companies and fire the planners – will boost growth. It is not made plain why these companies would be better at updating the regions decaying industrial base than the government.

Economist Andrew Batson suggests opening branches of the China’s best universities to boost the local skills base and partially reverse the population decline.

But Manchuria already has three of the country’s top 25 universities. The problem is that local students see admission as their ticket out of Manchuria, while those from outside the region rarely stay. A brief non-scientific survey of undergraduates I know from my town’s university found no-one originally from outside the province who intends to stay after graduation: one laughed at the suggestion. 

Manchuria resembles the rust belts of the western world and the problems seem similarly intractable. Just like in the west, relative decline has provoked a political backlash, though it takes a different form than in the west. (As annoying as I am I have not yet sparked an anti-immigrant backlash.)

Industrial decline has created workers’ movements. As China is a worker’s paradise, trades unions are illegal, so keeping track of what are by definition wildcat strikes is hard. The government likes to pretend strikes afflict only foreign owned companies, and certainly never state ones.

Nevertheless thousands of strikes are recorded every year by the Chinese Labour Bulletin. The regions heavy industries were described as “a disaster area” for not paying employees on time by the People’s Daily in January. Miners have been striking and protesting in large numbers in the city of Shuangyashan. This may intensify as the government has announced ‘restructuring’ plans that will lay off almost 2m steel and coal workers.

In Manchuria it will be difficult for the newly unemployed to find work. Manchuria’s reign as China’s richest region is over – but after four centuries at the centre of Chinese history it might not be quite ready to step aside yet.  

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook


Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.


The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.

Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  


A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.