26 March 2019
The loss-making Zhengyang coal mine in Heilongjiang province has laid off the majority of its employees and is likely to close. Many others will follow. Photo: Reuters
The loss-making Zhengyang coal mine in Heilongjiang province has laid off the majority of its employees and is likely to close. Many others will follow. Photo: Reuters

Overcoming the challenges of China’s rustbelt

In the next five years, China’s steel sector should reduce its capacity by 100-150 million tonnes.

Meanwhile, the coal mining sector will cut its capacity by 500 million tonnes, with another 500 million tonnes to be restructured in the following three to five years.

As world trade has collapsed, export-led growth is out of the question.

Owing to secular stagnation, advanced economies can no longer absorb available exports, nor can they invest as much as before.

Nor will things get better any time soon.

Recently, Chinese steel prices experienced a short-term rise, and market conditions are expected to improve after the shutdown of steel factories.

Yet, a full recovery for the global steel industry may take a few years.

Hope for the northeast

Northeastern China comprises the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjian. It is China’s industrial base.

In the early 2000s, the government’s “Revitalize the northeast” campaign sought to turn the region into an economic growth engine.

More recently, the rebalancing of the economy has been shifting growth momentum away from heavy industry toward consumption and innovation – which means diminishing prospects for the northeast.

Some observers call the northeast China’s “rustbelt”.

In the United States, the rustbelt refers to several states from New York to Michigan.

The term gained popularity in the 1980s as the region suffered from economic decline, population loss and urban decay because of the shrinking of its once powerful industrial sector.

There are some parallels between the US rustbelt and northeastern China. However, differences abound.

By the early 1980s, the US was already a major advanced economy with high living standards.

Industrialization had been completed decades before. Services dominated employment.

Finally, outsourcing and offshoring made possible the “race for the bottom” at the expense of domestic labor.

In China, the differentiation of regional economies is still accelerating.

Average living standards remain relatively low.

Industrialization continues in many provinces.

Urbanization will remain significant for a further 10-15 years.

The transition to services has only just begun.

Finally, through its stakes in the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the central government can still play a major role in shaping the transition.

In other words, China’s rustbelt has legitimate hope, but only with the right policies.

Transitional pain

If current overcapacity is reduced by 30 percent in targeted sectors – steel, coal mining and cement – these cuts would translate to layoffs of up to three million workers in the coming two or three years.

Last year, 13.1 million new urban jobs were created in China, and this year’s target is 10 million.

If a significant majority of the jobless in the northeast can be re-employed, the regional economy would prove resilient.

In the coal and steel sectors, the government will allocate US$15.4 billion in the next two years to help laid-off workers find new jobs, particularly in the service sector.

In the short term, the workers’ training, reskilling and fiscal support can alleviate some of the transitional pain.

While restructuring the SOEs will reduce their workforce, it will also contribute to the creation of new firms that will offer new job opportunities.

As China moves toward a more entrepreneurial economy, government is encouraging start-ups, particularly in new and emerging industries, which could help younger employees.

All efforts to promote productivity and upgrade innovation in the northeast’s business environment are needed, including increasing efforts to attract domestic and foreign anchor companies, homegrown talent and accelerated foreign direct investment, as well as to ensure greater ease in doing business, including easier cross-regional labor flows.

In this process, small and medium-size companies should play a vital role, because they are more labor-intensive.

Tough, but feasible

Internationally, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative can support China and its trade partners, including its neighbors in the northeast.

As these countries continue to industrialize and urbanize, they need more infrastructure and upgraded industrial structures that China can provide.

Despite the challenging transition, the alternative – following old policies in the “new normal” – would be far worse.

It would bankrupt the SOEs, wreck the banks, demolish jobs and devastate regional economies.

Reforms are critical.

While policymakers believe that the Chinese economy is able to create more jobs to absorb laid-off workers, the task won’t be easy.

But it is feasible.

For more of Dr. Dan Steinbock’ articles, see

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Dr Dan Steinbock is the research director of international business at the India, China and America Institute (USA) and a visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and at EU Center (Singapore).

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