Three women working at a coal mine in Fuxin, Liaoning province, in 2007. Coal-rich Fuxin is now facing a slowdown as a result of resource exhaustion. (Miao Ao/for China Daily)
In the 1950s, coal miners earned high incomes and benefited from a raft of government welfare measures, so the job was popular among young people in Hegang. Today, the decline of the industry means fewer and fewer young people are staying in the city. According to data from the 2000 national census, the northeast region had the country's highest unemployment rate, with ex-miners accounting for the largest group of jobless workers.
"The pillar industries in the three provinces are strikingly similar and focus on the primary sector, including equipment manufacturing, petrochemicals and agricultural products," Feng Lei, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China Youth Daily in July.
"Given the industrial structure of the northeast, the decline in domestic investment and the drop in international commodity prices is bound to have a great effect on the three provinces, so it's no surprise they're experiencing an economic downturn," he said.
Feng said the region is being hit twice over because the depressed economy is accelerating the population outflow and the declining population is hampering economic revitalization efforts.
The regional economy isn't the only thing affected by the population outflow, and other areas, such as education, are also suffering.
Universities in the three provinces are experiencing a severe shortage of students. Last year, 28,335 graduates were admitted to 50 colleges and research establishments in Liaoning, 2,259 fewer than the total enrollment plan for the province, according to a report published by China Education Online.
Moreover, an increasing number of graduates from the three provinces are opting to move to southern cities in search of work. "This phenomenon is obvious at our university. Not only do students from the south choose to return to their hometowns, but more northeastern students are heading south because they believe the economically developed areas can provide more job opportunities," said Li Lianying, a teacher who works at the Employment Guidance Center at Jilin University.
The effects of the outflow of labor and talent are being exacerbated by a falling birth rate. Data from the 2010 census show that the figure was 1.03 percent in Liaoning and Jilin, and 1 percent in Heilongjiang, well below the national 1.5 percent average, and lower than in Japan and South Korea. The UN's Population Division defines a birth rate below 1.3 percent as "ultra-low".
At the end of 2013, the National People's Congress, China's top legislative body, adopted a central government proposal under which couples would be allowed to have a second child if one of the partners was an only child.
Heilongjiang implemented the policy in April last year, but so far just 6,484 qualified couples, accounting for 1.6 percent, have obtained a second-child certificate, as opposed to the national average of 8.3 percent.
Interest has also been low in Jilin and Liaoning. "Since March 2014, only 70 qualified couples, about one-tenth of the total in our community, have submitted applications," said Zhao Xin, an official in Yizhongmingcheng, a residential community in Changchun, the capital of Jilin. "I know that not everyone who gets the certificate really wants to have another kid," he said, with reference to couples who obtain permission simply to ensure they will be allowed to have another child at an unspecified time in the future.