Print Edition - 2019-04-20  |  On Saturday

For Chinese raised in prosperity, shrugs in the face of layoffs

- KEITH BRADSHER, CHONGQING

Apr 20, 2019-

Huang Lincai is a cheery 23-year-old with a lot of optimism—even though he recently lost his job. For nearly four years, he worked in one of the three cavernous Ford Motor assembly plants in Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis in southwestern China with almost 20 million people. Every day, he spent long hours putting brake fluid into the Ford Focus compact cars that glided past on the assembly line.

But with car sales plunging as the Chinese economy slows, Mr Huang was laid off in January along with thousands of other workers at Ford’s factories, which are part of a joint venture with a Chongqing automaker.

Far from panicking at his misfortune, he used his five months of severance pay to hang out for a few weeks with friends and ponder other career options, like maybe joining a friend’s start-up drawing cartoons on computers. He has now taken a job as a health club attendant, joining China’s booming service sector, although he has taken a pay cut compared to his work at Ford.

“I don’t want to go back to any factory again—it’s boring, it’s not what I thought,” Mr Huang said. That youthful confidence of always being able to find work is not unusual in China these days. A younger generation has come to expect prosperity. They increasingly look for personal fulfillment as well.

Yet as the Ford layoffs show, economic warning signs are starting to emerge in China. Inflation has gradually crept up. Economic growth has slowly eroded. For now, though, even with the recent job losses, Chongqing is prospering. A huge pedestrian plaza in the Guanyinqiao neighborhood pulses with lights and crowds even on weekday nights. The trees are illuminated with bright lanterns.

Floor after floor of the surrounding buildings are filled with attractive restaurants, offering excellent meals for less than $10 a person. Go to a less fashionable neighborhood and a big plate of freshly made dumplings and soup costs less than $2.

Zigzagging over and under the city’s steep hills and even through buildings, like a three-dimensional drawing by M.C. Escher, is the world’s longest and busiest monorail line. Under the ground burrows an extensive subway system. The monorail and subway were almost entirely built in the last 15 years.

The city’s roots are still visible—literally. Ancient banyan trees drop roots from outlying branches into pockets of soil on the city’s rocky slopes.

Barges loaded with sand, freshly cut tree trunks and other goods move slowly up and down the muddy Yangtze River and the equally murky Jialing River, which meet in the heart of Chongqing. What makes the current optimism of young people like Mr Huang so striking, and the livability of today’s city so surprising, is that Chongqing has experienced a grim history over much of the past century. The beauty and orderliness now contrast with a violent past.

Chongqing was the World War II capital of China. Large areas were flattened or burned by Japanese incendiary bombs, with extremely heavy loss of civilian life. Deadly fighting then took place between heavily armed Red Guard factions in Chongqing in the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.

When Bo Xilai ran the city nearly a decade ago, his police imprisoned dozens of local business leaders in the name of fighting organized crime. The police confiscated their assets and sometimes tortured them. Mr Bo ended up sentenced to life in prison for bribetaking, embezzlement and abuse of power.

Less than two years ago, Sun Zhengcai, one of two men previously seen as potential successors to President Xi Jinping, was suddenly detained while serving as Chongqing’s leader. Accused of corruption and plotting against the Communist Party, Mr Sun was also sentenced to life in prison.

After crossing the Jialing River, the bus drove north for half an hour to the factory on a broad, mostly empty highway running through open countryside.

Today, the land from the river to Ford’s assembly plants—and for many miles beyond—has urbanized. Apartment towers alternate with beautifully landscaped parks.The huge amount of construction has kept rents cheap. Mr Huang, who likes to wear a green windbreaker with lots of colorful patches, pays $75 a month for his nearly 500-square-foot apartment with a living room and bedroom. His apartment is halfway up a 30-story high-rise, several miles north of the Ford factories. It is a neighborhood that did not exist when he was a boy.

Mr Huang earned about $1,000 a month at Ford. So his low rent left a lot of disposable income. He could save money and also eat out frequently. And he dotes on the Renegade motorcycle he recently bought. But one feature of Chongqing has not turned out the way Ford expected: parking. There’s not much.

Until recently, developers were only required to build one parking space for every 3,200 square feet of apartments. With many apartments the size of Mr Huang’s, that meant only one parking space for every six or seven apartments. Even that standard was seldom met, according to state-controlled media.

The result? Chongqing residents pay $30 or $50 a month just to rent one of the few parking spaces in their own building, even in outlying areas. Scant parking means the clean, modern subway and monorail are heavily used. But it is not helping local car sales, as evidenced by the job cuts at Ford.

And it’s not just automakers that are struggling. Chongqing’s latest test is not of warfare or of politics, but of economics. Recently dismissed workers thronged a hiring hall in February in northern Chongqing. But many booths normally staffed by employers were empty. Local factories “are facing great difficulty, some may even close,” said Mei Mei, a personnel manager for a local auto parts manufacturer. Her employer cut its own hiring in half and slashed the annual Chinese New Year bonus a month ago by 90 percent, she added. Mr Huang is not worried. He spent a lot of time riding on or caring for his motorcycle. During his unemployment, he thought about what he wants to do with the rest of his life. “I just ride to the riverside,” he said, “and enjoy the scene.” 

Fords awaiting shipment at a storage lot in Chongqing, China. 

Huang Lincai, a 23-year-old former Ford worker, recently laid off, at home. 

—2019 The New York Times

Published: 20-04-2019 10:16

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