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China’s shrinking cities: ‘Most of my classmates have left’

While China enjoys a reputation for world-beating economic growth, northeastern Chinese cities like Qiqihar, and dozens of others like it have seen growth slow to a trickle and in a few cases experienced outright recession. The downturn is more painful as the north-east was the country’s wealthiest area from the 1950s to the 1970s. China’s then-leader Mao Zedong channelled resources into a programme of rapid industrialisation that built on a legacy of factories left behind by the Japanese empire, which had annexed the region in the 1930s. From the early 2000s, nationwide infrastructure and property investment allowed heavy industry to expand and produced strong growth, a process intensified by a massive government stimulus following the global financial crisis in 2008. But by 2015 even official statistics — widely thought to exaggerate the country’s performance — showed growth below 5 percent in the north-east. One of the region’s three provinces experienced a 1 percent contraction, virtually unheard of in contemporary China. The problems afflicting the region — unproductive companies, weakening consumer demand and overinvestment in heavy industry — reflect challenges China will face more broadly as it attempts to make the transition from middle-income to developed-country status.