Of ice cream and industrial restructuring

The home of “Iron Man” Wang, the original Chinese hero of heavy industry, is, it turns out, also in the ice cream business. Rooting around in a freezer on a recent, very hot summer weekend, I came up with a bar of ice cream bearing the “Daqing” brand. This surprised me since Daqing is better known as the site of China’s largest oil field, and the inspiration for innumerable 1960s propaganda posters about the exploits of its model workers, particularly the aforementioned Wang Jinxi. But here was its name proudly displayed on the wrapper of what turned out to be a pretty tasty ice cream bar:


The ice cream bar was indeed actually made in Daqing, but rather than disguise the fact that they’re making food near a lot of toxic chemicals, the manufacturers are going all out to highlight their roots. Why? I can at least speculate. Daqing itself is indelibly associated with the Cultural Revolution, when Mao held it up as the national example of how revolutionary fervor could work economic miracles. While personally I find Cultural Revolution nostalgia creepy, it’s still a real phenomenon: some people imagine the 1960s as a less materialist, less complex, more virtuous time. The logo with its echo of socialist-realist woodcuts, the plain one-color wrapper, the proud “product of the Northeast” declaration–all these combine to evoke simpler times and convey a kind of straightforward authenticity.

Some people like to say that the Northeast was the first to adopt the planned economy and the last to abandon it, and that economic legacy is not usually thought to be a positive one. But it is still part of the region’s distinctive identity, so you might as well use it to sell stuff (the maker of the Daqing ice cream bars also sells ice cream under other brands without the socialist trappings). Of course there is something odd about using nostalgia for the high-Maoist era to sell mass-market consumer goods today, since the 1950s and 1960s in China were definitely not a time of consumer abundance. Ice cream was such an exotic luxury that it might be sampled only once a year–a far cry from the ubiquitous and cheap delights of today.

Is making ice cream in Daqing a sign of something else–perhaps the long-awaited emergence of a “consumer-driven” Chinese economy? It is true that Heilongjiang province, where Daqing is located, and the other northeastern provinces are under lots of pressure to diversify away from dying industries. The latest in a series of government plans to “revitalize” the northeast declares, correctly, that the region’s industrial structure is tilted toward traditional heavy industry and state-owned enterprises. Vice-minister of industry Feng Fei, returning from a recent inspection tour of the northeast, noted approvingly that some local governments were “promoting investment in sectors like car parts and food processing, fostering new economic growth drivers.” Ice cream has been made in Daqing since at least 2002 (when Baixing, the maker of the Daqing bars, was founded), but perhaps it is one of the industries of the future.

Yet there is a long way to go to shift the northeast’s industrial structure–you need to sell a lot of ice cream to match the economic impact of a giant oil field. Around two-thirds of Daqing’s GDP comes from oil and petrochemicals; food processing contributes just 2.5% (still higher than I would have guessed). And the city of Daqing itself accounts for a quarter of Heilongjiang’s GDP, which means that the Daqing oil industry alone generates about 18% of Heilongjiang’s GDP (on 2014 statistics). That’s huge, making it easier to understand why nominal GDP growth collapsed along with oil prices last year.

And in case it’s not obvious–yes, this whole post was basically just an excuse to write something else about Chinese ice cream.

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