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Gratitude debt owed to once-mighty economic engine room

By Li Yang | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-20 07:32

Li Yang

Northeast China has played a special role in the history of the country and beyond. Had the Japanese occupiers discovered oil in Daqing, Heilongjiang province, in the 1930s — which has since contributed 2.5 billion metric tons of crude oil to China after the nation's largest oilfield was discovered there in 1959 — Tokyo might not have risked starting war with the United States to seek oil in Southeast Asia to support its war machine.

Northeast China, a crossroads of Northeast Asia, has witnessed a much larger share of vicissitudes than any other part of the region, serving as a stage not only for the Manchu, Mongolian, and Han peoples but also for the Russians, Koreans, and Japanese from the 16th century to the mid-20th century. This has left it with a rich historical legacy, if not scars, in culture, construction, and industry, that are still visible today. It has also been a religious melting pot over the past 200 years of shamanism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Catholicism, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

That's why my freshman year at Qiqihar University in Heilongjiang, where I studied geography 24 years ago, was an eye-opening experience. The accent and vocabulary unique to local dialects, the food, weather, and the way people interact, are all different from my hometown of Jinan, Shandong province.

The straightforwardness, which newcomers, especially those from the south of the country, might find a bit rude at first but soon adapt to, and the hospitality and inherent sense of humor of the locals quickly cured me of homesickness. Their warmheartedness helped offset the bitter coldness of the six-month winter to some extent.

My visit late last month to Qiqihar, a heavy industry base, and Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, as well as a provincial cultural and economic center renowned for its Russian buildings proved to be another thought-provoking experience, compared with my previous impressions of the cities. I had only visited Harbin once before in 2003 to take the Graduate Record Examinations test at Heilongjiang University.

Both cities have expanded to at least twice the size of what they were two decades ago. Most landmark historical buildings left by the Russians and Japanese have now been overshadowed by skyscrapers. Qiqihar now suffers from traffic congestion, which locals seldom experienced 20 years ago.

The locals' heartfelt hospitality and humor instantly gave me a feeling of coming home and they are still proud of their organic food and cuisine, fertile black soil, cool summers, and strong winter sports. However, their concerns about the local economy, the brain drain, and the shrinking and aging population are real.

Few graduates from local prestigious universities choose to find jobs in Northeast China. In the words of the locals, the region had in the past continuously contributed oil, food, wood, coal, iron ore, industrial products, and equipment to the rest of the country. Now, as some of its key natural resources become depleted, it is looking to provide talent to the rest of the country. An unspoken objective for most local straight-A students is to seek jobs in the more prosperous southern parts of the country.

Locals generally hold a wait-and-see attitude toward the latest efforts of local governments to boost the digital and new economy in the region. Many historical debts need to be repaid first to help Northeast China bridge the gap between its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, and today.

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