An employee exhibits a unique Dongbei-style fabric at a restaurant in Hainan Province. (Photo: VCG)
When Northeast China suffers a slowdown, its people also face an image crisis
○ Nationwide discrimination against dongbeiren (people of Northeast China) has intensified
○ The bad behavior of some of dongbeiren is attributed to the region's economic downturn
○ Expert says that a structural reform of Northeast China will revive those provinces
The Embassy of Sweden in Beijing might have been bewildered by growing demands from Chinese online users recently that they should discipline "Swedish people" who steal green beans and bananas in South China.
However, the whole story is a tale of a tub.
On China's social media platforms, "Swedish people" has become a humorous but slightly derogatory term referring to people from the three provinces of Northeast China (also known as Dongbei), namely Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang provinces. Some believe it is the similarly high latitude of Northeast China and the Scandinavian country that gives Chinese netizens inspiration.
It all started after videos went viral on social media that show a few dongbeiren (people from Northeast China) stealing fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers in tropical Hainan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. In some cases the unwelcomed fruit pickers ended up in fights and quarrels with local farmers. As the northeastern accent is highly discernible, online users started to create jokes about the Northeasterners and the banter spread to the Swedish Embassy's official Weibo account.
In a country as diversified as China, such banter based on regional stereotypes is commonplace. But behind the current wave of mocking against dongbeiren is a bitter story about China's rust belt that has been suffering from all the ills of an overly centralized and planned economy.
Northeast China, once the country's prosperous industrial base, has been experiencing a massive exodus of residents due to its shrinking economy, with many migrating to southern provinces like Hainan.
It is a sharp contrast from the good old days during the planned economy era after 1949 when people from other regions flooded to Dongbei to make a living.
"The previous glory came from a planned economy. It is for sure that Dongbei couldn't get used to the market-oriented economy very quickly," Liang Qidong, the vice president of Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences and an economist, told the Global Times.
He added that after China's opening-up in the 1990s, traditional heavy industries in Northeast China fell into decline.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Liaoning suffered a 2.5 percent recession of its GDP in 2016. Last year, Chen Qiufa, governor of Liaoning Province, openly admitted that the province had inflated its GDP figures from 2011 to 2014.
"Liaoning's problem reflects the three recessions of Dongbei: resource decline, structural recession and systematic recession," Liang said.
Liang explained that Dongbei is already resource-exhausted because coal, oil and nonferrous metals have all been exploited. The structural recession resulted from a lack of new industries and backward traditional industries. For the systematic recession, the number of State-owned enterprises remains large while private enterprises lag far behind.
Due to the decline of the local economy, many people chose to abandon their hometowns and head southward where Hainan has become a hot choice.
According to an article published by Caijing in 2015, 87 percent of property buyers were not local Hainanese. Among them, 79.6 percent were dongbeiren.
Each year, the migrant population from Heilongjiang Province reaches 300,000 in Hainan's Sanya, while the permanent resident population among them is only about 130,000. According to the 6th nationwide census in 2010, the net outflow population of the three northeast provinces was as high as 2 million, read the article.
Liang stressed to the Global Times that "The reason for the debate about dongbeiren is due to the region's economic downturn in recent years, as well as systematic, cultural and people-to-people issues," Liang said.
Dongbei's most glorious era was between the 1950s and the 1970s, boasting the highest urbanization level across China, Liang said. "In the 1950s and 1960s, Dongbei represented advanced culture. Outstanding young talents from southern provinces at that time felt proud and honored to work up in Dongbei."
Fu Yoli, a native Hainanese, said "Most people in Hainan have not formed a stereotyped image toward dongbeiren, but we often keep a distance with unfamiliar dongbeiren in case there is trouble."
Zhao Ya'nan permanently moved to Sanya from Dongbei in 2014. Zhao admits that conflicts between dongbeiren and Hainanese often occur. "Some dongbeiren indeed steal things from supermarkets, vegetables as well as bananas from the side of roads. But it doesn't mean all people from Dongbei are like that; some are good, some are bad."
A backward tag
There is a popular saying - "investment does not go beyond Shanhai Pass" as the investment condition in the region is poor. The Shanhai Pass refers to a geographical and economic division between the region and the rest of China.
A report released by recruitment online platform zhaopin.com this year calculated that in four major cities in Northeast China, China Institute for Employment Research indexes, an index to monitor employment climate, were all under one in this year's first quarter, which is even lower than last year's 1.2. Northeast China lags far behind other regions according to the report.
Where Dongbei lags behind is not just GDP growth. To many people, the region has all the hallmarks of the backward and overly planned economy era. The State-owned sector is still the largest share of the economy, and government jobs are the only "real" jobs for young people.
Connections are everything in Dongbei, according to Jin Xianghua, who comes from Tonghua, Jilin Province, and is now working for a tech company in Shanghai.
Jin said that "It is also common for people to use guanxi, or connections to solve their problems, so competition is not fair and equal here," she said.
Economy is another key factor which may influence people's educational level, Jin added.
Lin Yifu, a former vice president at the Word Bank and a well-known economist, last year proposed a strategy for Dongbei to develop new sectors to promote local advantages compared to other parts of the country, for example, a labor-intensive light industry.
In terms of attracting talents, Jilin launched provincial and municipal talent programs like other cities in China. However, Jin and her classmates are no longer interested in her hometown's attempt for a revival.
"In our WeChat group, all of my classmates sneer at this talent program. I analyzed the policy and compared the income that I am now earning in a first-tier city with that program; I think there is no hope for me to ever return," Jin said.
Relating to the recent debate on social media about prejudice against dongbeiren, Liang said the economic situation of Dongbei is not good, "So please don't rub it in. We should hear some positive voices and energy."
He added that after its structural reform, Dongbei will be better.
"Let Dongbei grow and develop for a while. Give it some opportunities," Liang said.
Like the economy, the people in Dongbei also face a public image crisis. During the planned economy era, the region led the country in education, income and urbanization levels. After the reform and opening-up, millions of skilled workers were laid off from the State-owned sector. Unlike in other regions where the private sector soon prospered and offered new jobs, Dongbei has never really recovered from its past wounds.
Bitter Flowers, a recently released movie in Belgium, depicts how a massive number of laid-off Dongbei workers went to France and ended up working as sex workers.
In recent years, Dongbei people have become known for their outlandish tattoos, which in China are seen as gang signs. As it's hard to land a stable job in Dongbei, many young people there make a living by performing on live streaming websites.
On social media, people from Dongbei are suffering an unprecedented wave of stereotypes.
When some were caught stealing fruits in Hainan, all people from Dongbei were blamed. Hashtags of "dongbeiren steal things" and "dongbeiren steal green beans" went viral, and even "dongbeiren steal Sanya" has become a hot topic.
Zhang Zhi'an, dean of The School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-Sen University, told the Global Times that mocking of dongbeiren may result in negative effects.
"It may further widen the discrepancy and gap between northern and southern regions, or you could say developed and underdeveloped areas," said Zhang.