Senior managers and engineers of Daqing Oil Field Company were given a tough, if not impossible, mission by parent company China National Petroleum Corporation in March. Their mission was to find ways to maintain annual crude oil output from Daqing at 40 million tonnes or more during the coming 10 years. Rising global oil prices and China's thirst for oil to fuel its roaring economic growth are making it profitable to dig deeper into old ground, such as the 48-year-old Daqing oilfield, the first big oilfield exploited after 1949. With cumulative proven reserves of about 6 billion tonnes since the 1950s, Daqing is still China's biggest oilfield. But its output has been in decline over the past five years, down to 41.7 million tonnes last year from more than 50 million tonnes per year in its heyday from 1976 to 2002. Just like an old man whose vitality is sapped by age, the Daqing oilfield can now produce only 10 tonnes of oil for every 100 tonnes of liquid extracted from its wells. But by relying on their patented prospecting and drilling technologies, Daqing's management is cautiously optimistic about accomplishing the task. 'By using our self-developed know-how, some new oil reserve blocks are to be staked out and some oilfields on the verge of drying up may see oil well up again,' Wu Heyong , Daqing's chief geologist, told the Heilongjiang News Network. More importantly, Daqing has mastered a way of raising its comprehensive oil recovery rate - an index for measuring oil drilling efficiency - to 69.66 per cent, compared with the domestic average of 30 per cent and the 45 per cent average of major foreign oil producers, according to the government website. Daqing believes there are still billions of tonnes of oil reserves that can feasibly be tapped in areas surrounding the Songhuajiang-Liaohe Basin which encompasses the Daqing oilfield. Like the Daqing Oil Field Company, many big state-owned enterprises in Heilongjiang province , which were once the industrial pillars of the country, are experiencing a trying period of economic transformation. They are tasked with either finding more exploitable oil or coal, or upgrading their product mix and production know-how. Some, like Daqing, are doing it spontaneously and some are being pushed by governments. 'Heilongjiang is a big province with ample resources ... but we have relied too much on resources. We have not done a good job in developing industries and products with high scientific and technological content, higher added-value and higher market share,' Heilongjiang governor Li Zhanshu was quoted on the provincial government website as saying. Heilongjiang was the sole province completely controlled by chairman Mao Zedong's troops when he girded up for a face-off with Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and his overwhelmingly superior forces on the eve of the civil war in 1946. But ample grain supply, abundant iron ore and steel, and advanced manufacturing capacity in Heilongjiang, which Mao quickly turned into military muscle, greatly boosted the combat brawn and morale of Mao's People's Liberation Army. It was this that helped them win the decisive Liaoning-Shenyang Battle in 1948. Historians say Heilongjiang was the springboard from where Mao directed his troops to sweep down across the expansive plains of northern China, cross the Yangtze River and finally drive Chiang from the mainland to Taiwan. When China unfurled its preliminary industrialisation ambitions for a planned economy, Heilongjiang once again became a major spearhead by supplying the nation with desperately needed grain, coal, oil, lumber, equipment and machinery. But when China started its crusade of opening up and reform in the late 1970s, and state-owned enterprises had to fight for contracts in the market under their own steam rather than wait for government orders, Heilongjiang seemed to lose its direction. 'Long nestled in government arms, most state-owned enterprises still find it hard to wean themselves completely from government care even after years of reform and opening-up towards a market economy in China,' said Da Zhigang , director of the Institute of Northeast Asia Economics under the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences. Despite its double-digit annual economic growth over the past nine years, Heilongjiang lags even farther behind its neighbours Jilin and Inner Mongolia , and rust-belt province Liaoning in several key economic areas - in total and per capita gross domestic product, growth rates of the primary and secondary industries, fiscal income growth rates and per capita income in rural areas. To attract foreign investment, the provincial government has held the Harbin International Fair for Trade and Economic Co-operation every summer since 1990. Each year, the value of signed Sino-foreign co-operative deals and foreign-funded projects is reportedly in the billions of US dollars, including US$10.5 billion from this year's fair, held last month. But the provincial government has found that few of the promised investments ever come to pass. 'The fundamental reason is that local enterprises do not have initiative,' Mr Li said. 'They lack inner power ... they even do not have a desire to operate and build [those investment projects].' The province has ambitions to build itself into a national production base for high-end machinery and equipment, oil- and coal-based chemicals, energy and power, food and other farm produce. It is expecting to boost its GDP to 1.23 trillion yuan, or US$4,200 on a per capita basis, by 2012 from 707.72 billion yuan last year. 'To accomplish all this, the provincial government has to first make substantial breakthroughs in enterprise management and government operation, which is more important than bringing in several big investment projects,' Mr Da said.