Not so long ago there was a gigantic brawl at a (huge) steel factory in Tonghua, Jilin province, that left one dead and the news media all aflutter. Another sign emerges that China could come apart at the seams at any moment!
I spent a couple of days in Tonghua last month, as it is a major gateway city to the North Korean border. While aspects of the city were somewhat miserable (no public library, in contrast to equally scrappy Baishan, an hour up the road), pollution was typically bad for a northeastern manufacturing city, and development is not nearly as fast as it ought to be, there was no sense whatsoever that the city was about to break into flames.
This points to a problem with the implicit interpretation of Western media reports — the assumption is that unemployment at one factory or unrest by a group of workers could trigger the whole house of cards to collapse.
I simply don’t think this is true.
While Tonghua is relatively poor in comparison to Shenyang and Dalian, the economy is nevertheless expanding, the government is getting people into new houses. Cab drivers — for me usually the best barometer of societal mood — were unequivocal about the state of Tonghua’s economy: neither really great nor really bad. Corruption is certainly a problem, but not to the point where people are out in the streets. Rather, the danger here for the CCP is that the government “iron rice bowl” mentality cannot be delivered on. In this sense, and in its manufacturing output, Tonghua is important for the Communist Party.
But an incident at Tonghua Steel, no matter how immense, and though it will be certainly remarked upon by the locals, is not about to send the entire city reeling into anger at the Party. The situation reminds me of Liaoyang, where I spent a great deal of time the summer after major labor protests reported by the New York Times (I believe in 2003). The lack of local consciousness about the protests in their aftermath, the unwillingness to engage in anything resembling a subversive conversation about the events or the fate of the labor leaders, was truly remarkable then, and it is again today.
Yet, between strikes in Heilongjiang, the action in Liaoyang (and the potential for more in Shenyang’s burly suburbs and poor/dirty offshoot cities like Fushun, where I also travelled recently), and Tonghua, you have had enough material to study that fertile nexus between labor unrest, official corruption, and public responses in the last five or six years.
Just wait until North Korea cracks open! Then we will truly have something to talk about with regard to the labor market and social changes in these borderland regions.