The where and why of East China

The easternmost parts of China are in fact pretty far east–from there it’s only about 500 more miles east to reach Japan, which is closer than Beijing. The area would be in the same time zone as Korea, if China did not ignore time zones and force everywhere to run on Beijing time. But the easternmost parts of China, which are in the provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin, are not East With A Capital E: they are not in the officially defined region of East China which every schoolchild learns and which shapes every map and statistical release. Somewhat bizarrely, the easternmost parts of China are in fact designated as being part of “Central China.” Once I finally absorbed just how weird this is, it became clear to me that these regional categories are not simple descriptions of geographic reality but something more complicated. So why is eastern China not the same thing as East China?


As I learned from a classic article by geographer Cindy Fan (JSTOR link), the modern definition of “East China” is in fact an industrial policy program from the early years of the reform era. According to Fan, the current West-Central-East scheme of dividing up the provinces originated in the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1981-85), and was formalized in the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1986-90). The main purpose of the division was to give more favorable treatment to the coastal provinces and focus on developing foreign trade. (As you can see from the map, “East China” includes any province with a coastline, some of which of which are as far west as “Central” provinces.) This decision represented a backlash against the regional policies of the Mao era, which had spread state-sponsored investments–like the infamous “Third Front” military-industrial projects–across the interior in an attempt to narrow regional economic gaps. It was eventually realized that these investments had been generally bad and produced few returns. So rather than try to remove the coast’s historic advantages, the government decided to capitalize on them, and hope the resulting growth would lift the interior provinces as well. Which it more or less did.

The pendulum started to swing back toward favoring the interior provinces in 1998 with the launch of a program to “develop the west.” Concern about uneven development and regional inequality has been a persistent feature of Chinese Communist economic thinking, and these concerns had been put on hold rather than forgotten during the two decades or so of coastal favoritism. The western development program indeed had an old-school feel,  focusing on state-sponsored investments, though more in infrastructure than heavy industry or defense. And it was quickly followed by similar programs to “revive the northeast” and to promote the “rise of central China.”

Although I don’t want to go into too much detail about these programs, it does seem pretty clear that all these measures supporting investment in inland provinces did in fact lead to a lot more investment in inland provinces. There was lots of press coverage about the boom in the western provinces, which were growing faster than the east. In fact we can see that the much-discussed rise in China’s investment share of GDP is most intense in the inland provinces (the investment share of GDP at the provincial level is not consistent with the same figure at the national level, in part because the national figures attempt to correct for overstated investments in the provincial figures.) To me it seems quite plausible that at least some of this distortion is the result of all these regional development programs.


So one of my big questions about the current government has been whether the pendulum will swing back the other way–whether they will, as in the 1980s, get tired of making lots of poor investments in the inland provinces. The general rhetoric of giving a greater role to market forces could certainly imply a lower priority for these regional development programs, which by their nature try to stand in the way of the market forces that tend to reinforce gains in the coastal provinces. There are some interesting signals: in this year’s government work report Premier Li Keqiang said “we will support the eastern region in taking the lead in development”–which certainly sounds like a return to the 1980s-era policies. On the other hand, he continued to endorse the regional development programs for the west, northeast and central regions, which are promised more government funds. But given how hard the current downturn is hitting some inland provinces, in part because of their heavy dependence on mining, my bet is that East China is going to reclaim its leadership position anyway.

Endless maps most beautiful, China edition

Maps are enjoying a renaissance these days, with many websites and news outlets turning maps into wonderful graphical tools for showing data and seeing new patterns. There are now lots of good free tools for putting these kind of infrographics together, but a lot of what is available is rather US-centric. So I am very pleased to have recently stumbled across a couple of pretty wonderful free tools for making informative maps of China. The first and most amazing one is the ChinaMap project hosted over at Harvard, which allows you to plot a huge variety of social and economic data in map form.

Here’s a fun one: the language regions of China. Other cool ones for history buffs include the locations of Ming dynasty garrisons, the concentration of Qing dynasty entry exams–and, you guessed it, locust attacks during the Yuan dynasty. There’s also more practical and recent stuff like the routes of natural gas pipelines, air pollution, GDP per capita and similar economic indicators. The depth and variety of what’s available is stunning. I could play with this for hours (and in fact I have…)



The other new entrant in the cool China map sweepstakes is the PUMA project just launched by the World Bank, an open platform that pulls together an enormous amount of information about urban boundaries gathered from satellite photography (it includes China rather than being specifically for China). The level of detail here is amazing: check out for instance this illustration of the urban expansion of Beijing. The in-browser software seems quite sophisticated and has lots of useful features, though it’s less of a general-purpose mapping tool than one for tracking urbanization specifically. Still, pretty nifty.




The woes of China’s mining belt

Tiff Roberts over at Bloomberg Businessweek gave a nice write-up of a recent piece I did looking at how the impact of lower energy prices on China differs depending on where you are in China.This provides an excuse for me to reproduce one of my favorite maps for a wider audience:


While we stereotypically think of China as a huge consumer of energy and commodities, it is in fact also a big producer of same (one way in which China resembles the US).  Within China, this is essentially a regional phenomenon: the center, south and east are mainly resource consumers (and are inhabited mainly by ethnic Han Chinese). The northern and western provinces are where all the resources are produced (and where ethnic minority populations are larger).

One of the interesting things I learned from this map is that in economic structure terms Heilongjiang and Xinjiang are not that different, even though conventional geography and economic analysis never puts them together. Xinjiang is usually considered an exception to everything in “core China”, because it is so clearly a frontier territory, with different ethnic and economic dynamics (same goes for Tibet). Heilongjiang by contrast is uncomplicatedly part of “core China”. But in fact both have local economies with a high degree of resource dependence. And in historical terms it was not all that long ago that Heilongjiang was not part of “core China”: it is one of the three modern provinces covering the territory of Manchuria, which in the 19th century was an ethnic enclave for China’s Manchu rulers, then a booming frontier region when migration was opened up to Han, then a de-facto colony of Japan. Heilongjiang is obviously much more integrated now but I wonder if its earlier history offers any parallels to some of the dynamics we’re seeing in Xinjiang today