24b yuan project brings hope to rust-belt towns - and a deserted husband

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2008, 12:00am

Zhang Qingguo looks preoccupied as he peels the dead and yellowing leaves from the two small mounds of shallots in front of a dumpling restaurant.

This is the second time he has come to Beijing to look for his wife, who deserted him and their then 18-year-old daughter four years ago. Twenty-three days have gone by, and still nothing.

'I will continue searching for her here for another 20 days or so. I have to find her because my daughter is going to get married in three months' time and she wants her mother to show up at the wedding,' said Mr Zhang, a 47-year-old former coal miner from Jixi, Heilongjiang province .

Mr Zhang says everything has changed since his wife left - he took up smoking and drinking, the vices he once quit, but, on the upside, their daughter has been able to support herself. Their home has changed from an adobe dwelling to a two-bedroom suite in a six-storey building.

'Our home is now totally different from the old [one], and she should come home for a look,' he said, suggesting that some of the family's hard times could be over.

Mr Zhang and his wife were the envy of most of their relatives when they married in 1985. At that time, he was a coal miner in a big state-owned colliery in Jixi, and his wife worked in a tool-making workshop not far away.

China's pent-up thirst for industrial growth right after the decade of ideological and economic chaos of the Cultural Revolution meant the mid-1980s were the heydays of Jixi's collieries - collectively one of the key industries of Heilongjiang. Coal was swiftly hauled to metal smelters, power plants and households across the mainland to meet the nation's unquenched need for energy.

It was also a time when Mr Zhang could easily take masculine pride in his decent salary and welfare benefits.

Every month he would give his wife nearly 200 yuan, a sum beyond the expectations of most mainland housewives whose husbands' regular take-home pay was generally 70 to 80 yuan.

Better still, the colliery provided Mr Zhang and his colleagues with almost everything, from soap and washing powder to towels, boots, cooking oil, rice and pork. In those days, Mr Zhang's blue work overalls were a symbol of dignity and parents dreamed of finding a job for their children in the collieries, to the point where they were willing to bribe power brokers for one.

The only source of disappointment was accommodation - most of the houses had thatched roofs and asbestos tiles plastered onto adobe walls, which did little to shield occupants from winters of minus 20 degrees Celsius. But, the hardship did not seem so great at a time when most mainland families were living in similar homes.

Those were good times, but by early 1990s the writing was on the wall. A half-century of exploitation had exhausted more than 30 per cent of the coal mines in the city, and the coal output and quality started to decline. Miners' pay remained static and their free welfare benefits dwindled year after year until everything ceased by 1997.

From time to time, miners in some collieries were told they could not get their salaries at the end of each month. They had to wait, at first one or two months, then half a year, and then one or two years.

Worst of all, patches of the land from beneath which billions of tonnes of coal had been extracted started to cave in. The walls of some adobe houses in Mr Zhang's community had cracks big enough to fit a finger and people who could find other work started to move out of the community.

In July 1998 Mr Zhang was finally retrenched, and three months later his wife became jobless too. The family struggled to make ends meet on little more than 400 yuan they received in monthly government subsidies. After two fruitless years of waiting for the government to organise new jobs, Mr Zhang tried self-employment. He tried his luck at apple-trading, street-side food stands and taxi driving. But good fortune proved elusive. Mr Zhang smoked more and went to sleep drunk more often. Then, one day in the depths of winter three years ago, he was drunk again and a severe quarrel erupted between the couple. He battered his wife and she was gone, and never seen since.

'I know the real reasons she left were the lack of money, the damp, cold house and the dim hopes, but things are getting better now,' Mr Zhang said.

Early last month, the Heilongjiang government announced that in the five years from this year, it planned to spend 24.65 billion yuan improving housing conditions for people living in thatched houses in coal mining areas.

Some families will have to be relocated. Serious ground subsidence has made some houses too dangerous to live in and the ground unfit for new buildings. Other homes will be reinforced with steel and concrete, fitted with better heating and linked to upgraded roads, drinking water pipelines, hospitals and schools.

More than 280,000 families in 113 coal mining communities scattered in Jixi, Hegang, Shuangyashan and Qitaihe - the cash cows and energy sources of China over the past five decades - will benefit from the programme. And Mr Zhang was one of the first 30,000 beneficiaries.

In addition, the provincial government is also taking steps to extend the industrial chain of the old coal mines by developing coal-based chemical industries and other non-coal businesses.

Tax incentives and capital have been unlocked in those coal-based cities, as well as the oil city of Daqing and the timber centre of Yichun, to help them shift to new industries.

People are moving back and the once slum-like communities are alive again.

After graduating from a computer training school, Mr Zhang's daughter launched her own PC service store in her grandfather's town and, so far, business is not bad.

'I would say sorry one thousand times to [my wife] if I see her and she could forgive me for the only beating I ever gave her,' Mr Zhang said.

In the meantime, he is planning to quit his restaurant job and go to Guangzhou, where one acquaintance says his wife has just popped up.