City jobless become rural workers in remote wilderness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2000, 12:00am

ABOUT 100,000 unemployed workers in the cities of northeast China have gone to state farms on the border with Russia to plant rice and soya beans, the Workers Daily reported.

The three northeast provinces, the industrial centre of the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s, have among the highest rates of unemployment in the country as thousands of state factories have closed and no new enterprises have taken their place, throwing hundreds of thousands out of work.

The state farms in the north of Heilongjiang province, on the Russian border, are known as the Great Northern Wilderness, uninhabited wasteland before 1949, where Chairman Mao Zedong built giant state farms after he took power to grow grain and act as frontier guards against Soviet attack.

Those working on these state farms were demobilised soldiers or settlers from other parts of the mainland who moved there out of patriotism or on government orders.

The newspaper said that some of the land in the Great Northern Wilderness had been contracted to 203,000 families who worked their land on a commercial basis, mostly growing rice and soya beans.

Rice grown there is among the most prized on the mainland.

Now is the busiest period of the planting season and many of the families found they did not have enough labour to do the job, so they needed to hire workers from outside.

Since the start of May, a flood of unemployed people from the cities of the northeast provinces has passed through Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, to work on these farms, where they can earn 70-80 yuan (HK$66-75) a month, with free board.

But not all the urban jobless there have been so lucky. Over the past several years, 52,000 have moved to the wilderness to set up small factories, restaurants, shops and other service companies.

Many complain that because they compete with shops and canteens run by the state farms, local officials have put them out of business by overcharging them for water, electricity, land and other services.

In some cases, they have cut off the power all together, forcing them to close.

On the Zhaoguang state farm, for example, only four private restaurants remain out of the 40 that used to be there. On the Beian farm, 221 private restaurants remain of the 437 two years ago.

The operators have complained to the Government, demanding to be treated on equal terms with local state firms.