Posts tagged ‘Lanzhou’

Lanzhou: Left behind but content(?)

enjoying Chinese opera at the park

enjoying Chinese opera at the park

Recently, I went to Lanzhou, the provincial capital in Gansu, to take care of some bureaucratic paperwork and to visit my family. Walking around the city, I was struck by how different the city “felt” from other places I have visited in China.

The pace was noticeably slower than Shanghai or Beijing. I also noticed a lot of people seemed to have a lot of free time on their hands. Parks were filled with the elderly. People still took 2.5 hours off for lunch. A lot of people still worked in “danwei”, or state owned enterprises that are now rare in coastal towns. To get anything done, expect to wait twice as long.

Lanzhou people have always been more laid back. Given its geographic location, surrounded by arid mountains and the Gobi desert, and the starch-based diet, it’s no surprise that Lanzhou people are less intense than Chinese elsewhere. At the same time, the sheer lack of opportunities hasn’t helped.

Much of the economic progress and development taking place in many places around China has mostly excluded northwest China. Not surprisingly, most of the Danwei’s are not doing well. To ensure social stability, however, they are kept operational, but employees have little to do. In fact, many of my relatives were forced to retire early, as early as 45 and 50, for women and men respectively.

Since Lanzhou is a provincial capital, it also attracts a lot of migrant workers from even less developed parts of northwest China. As a result, for each job opening, there are countless applicants. My cousin just graduated from college with a degree in teaching. To actually get a job, however, she has to go through a set of hurdles where the acceptance rate is only 30%. Luckily, she passed. Even still, her salary is only $200/month, which is 50% lower than college graduates in more developed cities. Her parents are not doing much better. My uncle was laid off in the late 80’s and never found another full-time job.  My aunt has been an elementary teacher for early 35 years but still only makes $250/month.

While the conditions are also hard and competitive in the rest of China, but opportunities are available in coastal towns and even villages. My cousins in rural Jiangsu, for instance, can find jobs much more easily, and their pay is as high as $15k/month (a couple of very successful salesmen).

Is it really that hard to develop northwest China? Yes, Gansu faces many challenges, but I believe China is politically motivated to keep northwest China less developed and less open. Bordering Xinjiang, Gansu has always been China’s military stronghold in western China. You cant walk around Lanzhou without bumping into the military. The recent troops sent to Xinjiang have all been from Lanzhou.

In this part of China, the government is not willing to loosen its control on the local industries and state owned companies. Many of the state owned enterprises also have national interests, such as natural energy, oil refinement, chemical processing plants. 

Regardless of their current situation or the future, Lanzhou people seem to be taking it all in stride. The general sentiment is, why stress about it if there’s nothing you can do? They are rather resigned to their situation. Anyone who can’t put up with it tries their hardest to leave (like my dad did in 1982). For those left behind, they will go about their way, moving forward slowly, and cautiously enjoying life as much as they are allowed.

poker, a favorite pastime

poker, a favorite pastime

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August 25, 2009 at 7:32 am Leave a comment


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