Posted at 6:45 p.m. PST Monday, January 19, 1998 Joblessness throwing China a carve New York Times HARBIN, China -- The chant of the bean-curd peddler swirled through the alleys of the derelict Daowai district of Harbin, but on this 5-below-zero morning there were no takers. The cold weather in this city known for its ice-sculpture festival was not the problem. ``Business is bad,'' the old man said as he inched his cart between gray apartment blocks and half-idle factories. ``It used to be that everybody would buy my bean curd,'' said the man, who gave his name as Yang and who sells small blocks of the high-protein food for 12 cents each. ``Now some people can't even buy this.'' ``It's because so many factories are closing,'' he said. This is China's industrial heartland, the northeastern region where big-scale communist industry was born of exuberant idealism in the 1950s, and is now flailing for life. By the design of a government that must drastically prune thousands of bloated, money-losing state industries, workers are being laid off by the millions all over China. Nowhere are the effects more severe than in rust-belt northeastern cities like Harbin and Shenyang, where, many experts believe -- there are no reliable published data -- the unemployment rate already exceeds 20 percent. Just down the street from where the bean-curd peddler spoke is the Harbin No. 1 Tool Factory, which recently announced that at least 2,000 of its 10,000 employees will be laid off in February, after the Chinese New Year. One block in the other direction, workers eating lunch outside a giant cable factory said that it was operating at only half its capacity, and that one-third of its 10,000 employees had already been laid off. Whether China's brisk economy can sweep up tens of millions of now-redundant workers in the years ahead may be the country's most explosive social challenge. Already, over the last year, scores of small-scale protests over layoffs, lost pay and other employment issues have been reported. With uncharacteristic frankness, the government is loudly warning of huge layoffs yet to come. At the same time, it is working frantically to create new safety nets for dislocated workers, and starting to build a new national welfare system from scratch -- something that was not needed in the past because government ``work units'' provided workers with cradle-to-grave security. For the longer term, in the grand strategy of the economic chief, Deputy Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, China is betting that an expanding service sector, along with trade and private investment, will help employ the next generation. Because they already face such a harsh employment problem, China's leaders are keeping an especially fearful eye on the economic crisis now engulfing other Asian countries. At the Daowai wholesale market here, where shopkeepers come to buy food and consumer items from open-air stalls, it seems as though almost everyone -- the woman selling pig intestines for use as sausage skins, the man who pedals goods on a three-wheeled cycle, the woman running a corner noodle shop -- has been laid off by state-owned companies in the last couple of years. They are not starving, but they have become resigned to vastly different lives than the proudly secure ones they lost. In Shenyang, 300 miles to the south, former factory workers now stand in the streets carrying tools in their hands and signs around their necks, asking for work. FOR THE JOBLESS A NOMINAL PAYMENT The lucky ones here still get a token salary of perhaps $24 a month, which is barely enough to provide food, let alone pay school fees or buy new clothes. In Shenyang, a national newspaper reported in December, the average laid-off worker is receiving $17 a month. Throughout the country, many have kept their factory-owned and -subsidized apartments. But many people hawking goods in the wholesale market here also said -- contravening official policy and pronouncements -- that they are receiving no money at all from their old work units. The employment crisis has injected a new term into the daily vocabulary, and become an unwanted hallmark of the Jiang Zemin era of economic reforms. The phrase now constantly used to refer to layoffs, ``xia gang'' (pronounced syah gahng), came into wide use only in the 1990s, said Li Debin, a sociologist and labor expert at the Harbin Academy of Social Sciences. Literally meaning ``step down from one's post,'' it was originally seen as less severe than other words for unemployment. But as it became apparent that few would ever get back their old jobs, the term has become tinged with fear, and, among some people, sarcasm. The Chinese love to capture historical moments with wordplay. Now, no doubt to the dismay of Jiang's government, ``xia gang'' figures in a widely repeated joke involving repetition of the word ``xia,'' which means to go downward. [INLINE] [INLINE] Return to top[ISMAP]-This image allows you to access site resources 1997 - 1998 Mercury Center. The information you receive online from Mercury Center is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright-protected material.
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