[IWAR] CHINA joblessness

From: 7Pillars Partners (partnersat_private)
Date: Tue Jan 20 1998 - 10:24:42 PST

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    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
       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.
       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]
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