Manchuria rediscovers the resource curse

The unwinding of the boom in China’s resource-dependent provinces is leading to some introspection as to what went wrong. In a way, the explanation is not that complicated. The troubled provinces tend to be big producers of energy (mainly coal) and metals (mainly steel); prices for these goods are collapsing and demand is falling as China’s housing boom peters out. Therefore the slowdown is much, much worse in the northern and northeastern provinces that specialize in these industries.

The China Economic Times, one of the wonkier Chinese newspapers, has lately been running a nice series of in-depth reports on these economically troubled provinces. I particularly enjoyed this piece by reporter Zhang Yiming, which focuses less on the immediate troubles of the coal and steel sectors and more on the longer-term question of why the Northeast in particular is so vulnerable to these troubles. I like that the author seems to have rediscovered the concept of the “resource curse,” much debated in the economic literature, by just talking to a lot of people in the former Manchuria. The piece is short enough to translate and share:

The Northeast is a vast territory rich in resources, whether we are talking about grain, forests or various kinds of minerals, but these resources have not been effectively developed.

The Northeast produces much grain, but large quantities of its grain are shipped to the south where they are processed into finer products, such as Cantonese moon cakes, that are then sold back to the Northeast. Another example is the Northeast’s timber, much of which is shipped to the south and made into high-end furniture, which then returns to the Northeast to be sold. The Northeast also produces a lot of animal fur, and Northeastern people have a tradition of wearing mink coats. But most of the mink coats Northeasterners buy are made in the south, such as Guangdong, Zhejiang and other coastal areas.

There are many similar cases. Although the resources are located in the Northeast, they are not effectively converted [into finished goods], but are sold at a low price to the resource-poor south. After extensive processing by southern factories and transformation into high value-added products, they are bought back by Northeast people at a high price. In this way the Northeast is stuck at the low end of the industrial chain, while the most profitable and most efficient parts of the chain stay in the south. Local people say that “those shrewd southerners have taken all the money.” From the perspective of a southern businessperson who lacks resources, all of the Northeast’s resources are very valuable in the south, as they can yield all kinds of products and form a complete industrial chain.

The China Economic Times‘ research group in its local surveys found that there are many reasons for this situation in the Northeast. One issue is the lack of appropriate local conditions, while another issue is the lack of local spending power, and these issues are closely related. For example, processing mink pelts into mink coats requires sophisticated technology and skills, and there is a lack of local personnel with the right skills. Some local mineral resources and chemical raw materials, due to the lack of a local downstream industry, can only be sold to companies in the south.

Local people know that if they can process these resources it will bring profits and create much more value, but there are few people doing this kind of work and most people lack the drive to change the status quo. Locals generally agreed that that they can earn considerable amounts of money by selling resources, so there is no need to spend a lot of time and energy in an effort to change the status quo. This issue is clearly shown in the development of the local private sector.

State-owned enterprises make up a large share of the Northeast’s old industrial base. In recent years, the private sector has vigorously developed, and the share of state-owned enterprises has gradually declined. But the growth of the private sector is not as fast as locals imagine. We observed that most private-sector companies are closely related to the exploitation of natural resources. Few are in the higher-value-added parts of the industrial chain, even in high-tech industries.

Given that currently the Northeast lacks the capacity for doing high-end processing, studying and introducing skills from the south is a viable option. But the China Economic Times research group found that southerners who come to the Northeast often do not fit in. The majority who do stay work closely with the leading local state-owned enterprises, and those tend to be in the upstream part of their sectors.

It is an obvious fact is that the reasons why businesspeople from the south do not stay in the Northeast is closely related to the business environment, as it is difficult for outsiders to get accustomed to the bureaucratic environment in a short time. Also, Northeast people are relatively lacking in market knowledge, especially in comparison with people from the south. Because the Northeast has so many resources, people are easily contented with what they have, and are unwilling  to spend lots of time on improving and extending the industrial value chain.

To change this status quo of low-efficiency resource development requires a lot of time and effort to change people’s thinking, and these kind of changes obviously cannot happen overnight.

A failure to invest in manufacturing and other industries during resource booms is indeed one of the mechanisms by which the resource curse is thought to operate, and there is certainly anecdotal evidence that this is part of what has been going in the China’s Northeast. The consensus in the economics literature seems to be that resource curse effects exist, but are highly dependent on institutions: Norway and the United States have lots of natural resources but have turned out pretty well. On the other hand, there is some evidence that resource-curse effects operate at the regional level even within economies that, as a whole, have escaped its worst effects (for instance, here is a paper on the Appalachian region of the US).

China usually tends to feature in this literature as one of the resource-poor Asian economies that was forced to become competitive in manufacturing because it could not rely on natural resources. This view obviously needs to be nuanced, and a regional perspective is helpful. China is in fact a huge producer of energy and other natural resources; it just happens to consume virtually all of its production domestically, and import a lot more besides. The main reason that a major resource endowment did not end up dominating the domestic economy is probably that China is just too darn big, and those resources are so unevenly spread across the country. China’s southern coast is indeed largely a resource-poor region forced to rely on its own manufacturing skills, but some other parts of the country do look like they are suffering from a variety of the resource curse.

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