Book review: The Specter of "the People", by Mun Young Cho

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 5:33pm

The Specter of "The People" - Urban Poverty in Northeast China

by Mun Young Cho
Cornell University Press
3 stars

"Northeast China was the first area liberated by the Communist Party during the civil war. Since then, we northeasterners have devoted all our resources to the state without compensation. What came to us after all these sacrifices? Total neglect! Total betrayal!"

These are the words of Zhang Luoyong, a laid-off worker in the northeastern city of Harbin. He and his former colleagues are the subject of this well-researched book by Putonghua-speaking South Korean scholar Cho Mun-young.

The book is based on 26 months of fieldwork in Hadong, a decaying residential area of Harbin, between 2006 and 2008.

Cho chose Harbin because it illustrates most vividly the change in China since the start of the Deng Xiaoping era. In Mao Zedong's time, the northeast was the most industrialised region of the country and its state workers enjoyed job security, stable wages, and housing, health and other benefits.

But now they have fallen from the top to the bottom of the economic tree. The northeast experienced nearly a quarter of the 30-40 million layoffs due to closure of state companies. Between 1978 and 2005, Guangdong's GDP rose 120 times, that of Heilongjiang 32 times. In 2003, Guangdong accounted for 14.62 per cent of national FDI, Heilongjiang only 0.6 per cent. "Impoverished workers in Hadong have not merely been reduced to 'the poor'. They are now mocked as ignorant dropouts from the market economy," Cho writes.

The district - population 55,000 - was home to the Fenghuang factory that once employed 15,000 workers; it went bankrupt in 2005.

The best part of the book is the front-line reporting, especially the interviews with the people of Hadong. Journalists, especially non-Chinese ones, rarely report about such people. The fact that Cho is Korean and speaks good Putonghua are good reasons why he was able to continue his research.

He chose the title to emphasise the irony of the fact that the workers of Fenghuang were the model citizens of the first 30 years of the communist era; they worked with dedication for a modest wage for a company they believed belonged to "the people".

Now, in the new capitalist era, their factory has closed and they are at the bottom of the urban ladder.

Cho describes a visit to blocks of new flats the laid-off workers can't afford, because they have neither the cash nor a regular salary big enough to pay the mortgage.

A drawback for the general reader is that the book is written as an academic text, with references to other scholarly works - good for scholars familiar with the subject, but not so good for the rest of us.