January 13, 2020 / 2:43 AM / 5 days ago

With nothing to lose, loners build future in China's hollowed-out north

HEGANG, China (Reuters) - Li Hai is a nobody in China.

A general view of the coal city of Hegang covered in snow, in Heilongjiang province, northeast China January 2, 2020. REUTERS/Ryan Woo

But the 32-year-old ship mechanic became a minor internet sensation last month after posting a video of his everyday life in a largely forgotten coal city in the country’s far north. 

Resource-rich cities like Hegang in Heilongjiang province helped power China’s economic miracle. But as their coal, minerals and timber dwindled, their mines and industries declined. Populations shrank as the young fled south in search of jobs, opportunity and love.

With China’s economic growth at a 30-year nadir and living costs chronically high, cheap homes in hollowed-out cities are pulling a small tribe of frugal and independent-minded millennials to Heilongjiang. 

Hegang was the cheapest real estate market among China’s 321 larger cities in 2019, a big attraction for Li when he was house-hunting last year.

Li had few friends in his home city of Zhoushan 2,000km (1,200 miles) to the south. He had become estranged from his parents and his landlord was bent on raising his rent.

Often out at sea for a stretch of six months, Li’s thinking was to build a base in Hegang and keep a lid on costs.

“Many drifted here to buy homes as a fail-safe,” said Li, who paid 750 yuan ($100) per square metre for a top-floor flat in a low-rise housing estate. Apartments in Beijing cost 80 times more. 

“If something happens to them, at least they have a home.”

Wary of frauds and tricksters, Li has few friends, who, like him, prefer not to go out.

“You need money to socialise,” said Li, who earns 60,000 yuan ($8,640) a year.

When not in bed with a novel, he would be posting positive product reviews online to get extra cash. 

“Social classes are fixed,” Li said. “The poor can never achieve anything. When you encounter problems, if you can solve it, great. There’s not much you can do otherwise.”

Not all recent Hegang arrivals are as fatalistic.

Zheng Qian, 26, moved to Hegang in October, and is now able to save half of his 5,000 yuan-a-month earnings from internet marketing.

The Guangzhou native, who mostly keeps to himself, aspires to be a live-streaming star.

Last month, Zheng posted a video of himself throwing boiling water that instantly froze in Hegang’s frigid air.

The seconds-long clip won him 20 million views on ByteDance’s Douyin, a popular short-video app.

Slideshow (3 Images)

“That’s where I must seize any opportunity,” Zheng said.

($1 = 6.9431 Chinese yuan)

(This story is refiled to correct typo in para 2)

Reporting by Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom. Editing by Lincoln Feast.

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