China’s northeastern rust belt, dominated by state industry and comparatively isolated from global trade, has been in relative economic decline for decades. Hardly any younger friends who had grown up in the Northeast still lived there. But a few years ago, after the industrial recession of 2014-15, a lot of anecdotal information suggested that decline had entered a new and more aggressive phase.
Stories about empty neighborhoods and abandoned schools were more widespread. Local journalists documented shrinking cities throughout the Northeast. Some cities indeed reported declining population numbers, but others just stopped publishing population figures altogether. I wrote a blog post entitled “China’s Northeastern Rust Belt is headed for demographic crisis” in 2016. Yet the official population figures from those years did not really show a crisis: the population of the three Northeastern provinces–Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang–declined by only 1.1 million people from 2010 to 2019. That’s still a pretty poor showing for a period when the population of the nation as a whole was still growing, but not a massive change in the trend.
The 2020 population census has revealed, however, that those numbers were completely wrong. According to the results, the three northeastern provinces have actually seen their combined population decline by 11 million people, or roughly 10%, since the 2010 census. The chart below shows the difference between the population numbers that have been published annually for the previous decade, and the trend implied by the 2020 census. The dotted lines are a simple linear extrapolations between the 2010 and 2020 census data points, so they assume the population decline began in 2010. If instead more of the population decline happened after 2014-15, which seems plausible, then the downward slope of the lines would be even steeper. In either case, population trends have clearly changed dramatically over the past decade.
Asked about the Northeast’s population loss at the press conference on the census results, Ning Jizhe, the head of the National Bureau of Statistics, gave the following response:
The population decline in the Northeast is influenced by a variety of factors including the natural environment, geography, population fertility levels, and economic and social development. The Northeast is located at a high latitude with relatively long and cold winters, and some Northeastern people are migrating to the warmer south. This is a trend of population movements in many countries around the world: both Europe and the US have seen this kind of phenomenon. In addition, the natural population growth rate in the Northeast has been lower than the national average for a long time, because of fertility-related values and behavior. It is also important to see that the economy of the Northeast is in a period of structural adjustment. The economically developed coastal provinces and cities offer diverse opportunities and employment prospects, which are very attractive to people in other regions including the Northeast.
Although his carefully neutral language does not quite do justice to the scale of the outmigration, this is a fair summary of the drivers of the population decline. While fertility has declined across China, the decline has been much sharper in the Northeast. Government family planning policies were more effective at changing behavior, as more of the population worked for state-owned enterprises that aggressively enforced restrictions. Fewer births translated into shrinking numbers of young people, and there were many more reasons for young people to leave than to stay. The state enterprises that had been located in the Northeast for strategic or geographic reasons were cutting rather than adding jobs. Corrupt and inefficient local governments did little to promote new industries or the private sector, and few entrepreneurs sought out the Northeast. As a result, more and better jobs were on offer elsewhere. And it is not surprising that, given a choice, fewer people are willing to endure winters where temperatures regularly reach -30° C.
Economic decline and population loss in older industrial regions is a widespread phenomenon in developed countries, and has been particularly challenging for Europe. So what’s unfolding in China’s Northeast is not unique. But it also has some Chinese characteristics. The Northeast has always been the most socialist part of the country–officials still call it “the eldest son of the revolution”–and some of its problems are a payback for the distortions of socialism. The disastrously low birth rate as a result of the authoritarian intervention in families’ childbearing plans is one example.
So is the scale of the out-migration, which is large partly because too much of China’s population was located in the Northeast to begin with. Socialist China located a lot of industry in remote places for strategic and ideological reasons, much as the Soviet Union did with developing Siberia. In the 1950s, the northeast benefited from proximity to the Soviet Union and its assistance in building China’s new industrial base: it was the site of half of the civilian industrial projects supported by the Soviets. In the 1960s, the Daqing oil field in Heilongjiang became the national model for a new style of Maoist industrialization.
The economy of China today, which is much less focused on natural resource extraction, much more focused on global trade, and more open to consumer preferences, is not going to keep as much of its productive capacity in an isolated and inhospitable region. Some adjustment is probably unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean the Northeast can’t be a better place to live than it is now. Slowing or stopping the population decline, as various Chinese scholars have suggested, probably requires making the Northeast more like the rest of China: more hospitable to private investment, with local authorities more engaged in developing new industries than protecting old ones. The population exodus does make that harder, as the younger generation who could lead a transformation increasingly go elsewhere.