China dreams on hold: heartland city feels chill of economic slowdown

ZHENGZHOU, China (Reuters) – For the final decade, the city of Zhengzhou has been getting a style of the Chinese dream.

Fueled by funding, together with massive subsidies from the central authorities in Beijing, the provincial capital of the inland province of Henan has boomed.

Once an impoverished city of 10 million set between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, Zhengzhou now boasts a gleaming downtown skyline and a cascade of freeway overpasses. An upgraded rail community has helped flip the city right into a logistics hub, linking China’s output with overland shipments to Europe as half of the Belt and Road initiative.

The Apple provider Foxconn constructed the world’s largest iPhone manufacturing unit in Zhengzhou.

For many throughout Henan, a province of 100 million individuals, Zhenghzou has grow to be an emblem of achievement and alternative in China’s hinterland – a magnet for these leaving pig farms and wheat fields in search of higher lives.

Personal incomes in Zhengzhou over the previous decade have doubled on common, hitting 33,105 yuan ($four,791) final yr. That has allowed many residents a style of center class life; shopper home equipment, luxurious items and flats of their very own.

Automakers like GM, Honda and Nissan, and shopper manufacturers like Christian Dior and Cartier, have taken be aware, betting that rising incomes in cities like Zhengzhou will open new and increasing markets for them.

But an economic slowdown that started in late 2018 seems to have accentuated uncertainties within the city. With momentum slowing throughout the board from actual property to the buyer and tech sectors, some right here really feel their possibilities of shifting up the social ladder have diminished as the fee of dwelling outpaces earnings development. Once ample alternatives now appear to be drying up.

Reuters reporters traveled to Zhengzhou in late 2018 and early 2019 to speak to dozens of enterprise house owners, shoppers and other people hoping to purchase houses. Many expressed anxiousness or doubts about their potential to carry on to or obtain the dreams of prosperity promised by President Xi Jinping.

These are three of their tales.

They point out how exhausting will probably be for China to construct a brand new basis for the financial system of its future in inland provinces like Henan, and are a actuality verify for world retailers trying to find profitable new markets.


For so long as he can keep in mind, Gong Tao needed nothing greater than to grow to be an entrepreneur like his father.

A touring salesman of Chinese calligraphy brushes, his father eked out a dwelling crisscrossing Henan to supply for the household, whereas imbuing in Gong the worth of exhausting work.

Fresh out of college, Gong arrange a enterprise in Zhengzhou in 2014 to digitally etch pictures onto metallic prints for patrons commemorating particular events.

Two years later, and nonetheless solely 24, he pivoted into the booming on-line financial system, making a start-up that helped shoppers design applications for WeChat, the ever-present Chinese social media platform.

Business was good, and buoyed by the frothy tech scene and authorities insurance policies supporting entrepreneurs, Gong expanded aggressively, forking out on workplace renovations and new furnishings. He employed as many as 70 workers. But then a flood of cheaper rivals undercut his enterprise simply because the Chinese financial system began slowing final yr.

“We didn’t anticipate the market would fall off a cliff,” the soft-spoken Gong, now 26, instructed Reuters in a fast-food outlet in downtown Zhengzhou. He stated he had drastically reduce spending on garments and stopped consuming out.

“For the whole of 2017, business was flourishing, things were pretty good, and then all of sudden in 2018 it was flatlining,” he stated.

Last October, Gong took the recommendation of a mentor who steered he wind up his enterprise and wait out the downturn. He landed a gross sales job at a subsidiary of one of China’s largest e-commerce corporations however swiftly grew to become disillusioned with the monotony and low pay, and determined towards returning to work after Chinese New Year in February.

Gong laments not shopping for an residence earlier than costs started to spike dramatically three years in the past, although costs have been easing not too long ago, and the actual fact his relationship together with his then girlfriend unraveled as his enterprise did.

He hasn’t given up on his lifelong aspiration of working his personal enterprise, however says he must be real looking and is attempting to return to phrases with having to get an everyday workplace job for now.

“The reality is very cruel,” he says.

Fisherman Sun Lianxi sits in his boat as he travels down the Yellow River to solid his internet on the northern outskirts of Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, February 21, 2019. Picture taken February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter


With a telecommunications diploma from a prime Beijing college, a foothold within the Zhengzhou property market and marriage within the offing, all by the age of 26, Wu Shuang would usually be seen as a winner by many Chinese.

But in interviews, Wu described a relentless anxiousness weighing on him and his friends in Zhengzhou.

The two-million-yuan residence Wu purchased in 2017 depleted most of his household’s financial savings and left him with over eight,000 yuan in month-to-month mortgage funds.

After quitting an workplace job at a state-owned firm final yr which he described as boring and badly-paid, he additionally needed to shelve plans for opening a bar in Zhengzhou after his companions pulled out as a spending hunch hit the city.

“It’s not just house prices, it’s not just that it’s hard to find a job,” stated Wu, moon-faced with black-rimmed glasses. “Right now it feels like, because the economy is slowing, there are just a lot fewer opportunities.”

For many younger individuals, the China dream of discovering a prestigious job, getting married by a sure age and shopping for a house felt out of attain, he stated.

As property costs soar, particularly, many are compelled to rely on their mother and father financially nicely into maturity, he stated, a follow generally known as kenlao, or “gnawing on elders”.

Wu stated his mother and father had helped with the deposit and month-to-month mortgage funds on the residence he purchased, an association that makes him uneasy, particularly as his mother and father will not be rich.

“A lot of people feel powerless because those who are enjoying the good life, most of them are doing so not because of themselves, but because of their family,” Wu stated over an iced espresso at a bustling cafe in Zhengdong, Zhengzhou’s new business district.

“Your salaries may not differ too much but because of your family background you may have a lot less choices in life.”


Further down China’s social ladder, many really feel left behind and unable to enhance their lives by simply exhausting work.

For generations, the Suns plied their fishing boats up and down the Huai and Yellow Rivers, dwelling off their each day catch. Like their grandfather and father earlier than them, brothers Sun Genxi, 44, and Sun Lianxi, 32, have been born on a fishing boat.

China’s economic ascent has tantalized the brothers.

From their floating vantage level on the Yellow River, about an hour’s drive north of central Zhengzhou, they’ve gawped on the provincial capital’s dramatic improvement.

“These high-rise buildings have nothing to do with me. They’re for others, not me,” Lianxi says. “We don’t have any part in it.”

The Sun brothers had no mounted abode for many of their lives, dropping anchor wherever the very best haul took them. About a decade in the past, they settled by the Yellow River on the northern fringes of Zhengzhou, so Genxi’s eldest daughter may go to high school.

They need their youngsters to finish college, and the primary to interrupt from the lengthy line of fishermen of their household.

“If you don’t study hard, my today is your tomorrow,” Genxi, who’s illiterate, tells his daughter, now near finishing highschool.

The Suns have been house owners of a big houseboat, sufficient to accommodate their clan of 17 spanning 4 generations underneath one weather-beaten roof. The boat additionally served as a floating restaurant, serving freshly braised fish to day-trippers cruising the Yellow River on the outskirts of Zhengzhou.

But as half of a broad-ranging environmental crackdown, native authorities in 2017 took over the houseboat within the identify of minimizing water air pollution and over-fishing.

The Suns now stay in tents of tarpaulin and plastic sheets by a floating bridge on the banks of the Yellow River, lowered to fishing from a small dinghy.

“My dream is to have a place to live. My family can all live in the house and I can go work for others and stop fishing,” stated Sun Lianxi.

Slideshow (2 Images)

“Now even having a life like that is a luxury.”


($1 = 6.9104 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Reporting by Philip Wen, Stella Qiu and Yawen Chen; Editing by Tony Munroe and Philip McClellan

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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