Unrest in Tonghua

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!

Tonghuas location in the PRC, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Tonghua's location in the PRC, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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.

North Korean factory in Musan, about an hour from Tonghua; photo by Adam Cathcart

North Korean factory in Musan, about an hour from Tonghua; photo by Adam Cathcart

Francophone Sinology

The Quebec government is actively developing relations with China (independent of Ottawa, as usual).  An interesting research question might be to interrogate if Quebec benefits from, or is harmed by, Chinese nationalistic boycotts of French products.

Francophone East Asian studies is thriving at the University of Montreal; David Owenby, who directs the Center for Asian Studies at the same institution, maintains a blog about China whose lack of bulk is more than made up for by quality of content.

An excellent aggregation of news about China, in both French and English, is here.

VirtualReview’s compilation of Sino-French relations stories, including clips from France24 television, is here.

As one reads the pages, it is possible to be accompanied by the perfection of Baroque music in Ottawa.

Chinese New Year's Parade, Paris (13th arrondissment), 1 Feb. 2009; photo by Adam Cathcart

Chinese New Year's Parade, Paris (13th arrondissment), 1 Feb. 2009; photo by Adam Cathcart

At the apex of the escalator of the Beijing Metro station at Chaoyangmen 潮阳门, opposite the Foreign Ministry 外交部; photo by Adam Cathcart

At the apex of the escalator of the Beijing Metro station at Chaoyangmen 朝阳门, opposite the Foreign Ministry 外交部; photo by Adam Cathcart