How The Other Half-Billion Live

Expelling the proletariat from China's workers' paradise

A couple of years ago, I had a chance to tour Capital Iron and Steel, on the soot-smeared fringe of Beijing. Aside from dodging the geysers of flame that erupted periodically from the floor, what I remember most about the tour is the air of obsolescence that hung about the place: This factory, once the crown jewel in China's state-run industry, looked like something out of the 19th century. Capital Iron and its 170,000 workers were almost certain to be early casualties of China's free-market reform--another face of the excruciating labor pains preceding the nation's economic rebirth.

That upheaval, on a grander scale, is also the subject of Wang Bing's "Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks," a close study of industrial atrophy and its aftermath in the northeastern provincial city of Shenyang. Although to call Wang's study "close" is a bit of an understatement: For three years, starting in 1999, Wang's camera bumped along silently with Shenyang's residents as they worked in disintegrating factories and shambled through the city's muddy streets. In form and intent, Wang's film is an eloquent statement of solidarity with the segment of Chinese left behind by their country's economic boom. And "Tie Xi Qu" has the further distinction of being the most engrossing nine-hour film ever made about copper smelting.

Wang, a graduate of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, divides his monumental work into three parts. The first and longest, Rust, details the final days of three failing smelting plants in Shenyang's Tie Xi district; the second, Remnants, follows families in a soon-to-be-demolished neighborhood called Rainbow Row; and the third, Rails, narrows the focus to a single family of scavengers. In each case, Wang finds people buffeted by forces they only vaguely comprehend, pummeled alternately by entrenched bureaucracy and the invisible hand of the emerging free market. "What kind of society are we living in?" questions one disgruntled worker. "It's like what they say in biology--a life or death struggle. What I'm talking about here is survival of the fittest."

In the free market, we call this home a "fixer-upper": Landscaping, Chinese-style, in the documentary "Tie Xi Qu"
Wang Bing
In the free market, we call this home a "fixer-upper": Landscaping, Chinese-style, in the documentary "Tie Xi Qu"

Such a proto-capitalist analogy might seem surprising coming from a factory worker in China's hidebound interior. Yet, as "Tie Xi Qu" abundantly illustrates, Chinese society has been shaken to the core by the shift from a Maoist command economy to what Deng Xiaoping termed "socialism with Chinese characteristics." Before the present SARS-induced stall, China's flirtation with economic neoliberalism appeared to be a rousing success: By loosening capital controls, privatizing its state-run industries, and courting foreign investment, China produced breakneck economic growth. But the free-market roulette necessarily has more losers than winners--a point slyly made in the opening scene of Remnants, when a lottery-ticket hawker exhorts a crowd with an absurd appeal to nationalist sentiment. As Wang's camera studies the ash-caked, snow-muffled scenery, we begin to understand that Tie Xi has already been counted a loss in globalism's rigged game.

The resulting discontent among Tie Xi's residents is particularly acute, since the onrush of laissez-faire capitalism means the nullification of the social contract China's workers traditionally enjoyed. Whereas the state once provided pensions, health care, and affordable, if shabby, housing, the people of Tie Xi are quite abruptly left to fend for themselves. One of the factory's foremen aptly captures the tenor of their disillusionment: "They said we'd have a job for life, pension, health care, a safety net. What a joke. They don't care if you get sick, much less if you die. Next thing you know, the [Communist Party] will be calling itself the Republican Party."

And "Tie Xi Qu" makes clear that the factory workers have lost more than their pensions. When the smelting plant is finally idled, the former employees are sent off to a country hospital for a month of detoxification--an obvious sham, given the plant's level of lead pollution and atrocious safety standards. While the workers amuse themselves singing and watching porn, you also begin to feel their creeping sense of despair: When one of them drowns in a shallow pond, Wang lets the question of whether the man was a suicide linger delicately in the air.

Wang's concern with China's socioeconomic sea change--and, in particular, those people caught in its riptide--identifies him with other young filmmakers like Jia Zhangke. But the ambition and fortitude involved in making "Tie Xi Qu" simply beg comparison--the American documentary Hoop Dreams may come closest to the series' fly-on-the-wall intimacy. In Remnants, for instance, Wang's camera moves unnoticed from house to house, as though we were observing the world through the eyes of an especially inquisitive child.

Occasionally, Wang's endlessly patient gaze, burrowing from the macroeconomic to the intensely individual, uncovers something like epic drama in this industrial wasteland. There's an unforgettable episode near the end of the film in which a freight-yard squatter named One-Eyed Du looks squarely at the camera and recounts his life--a decade lost to the Cultural Revolution, constant harassment by the police, and no work but scavenging amid the ghostly husks of abandoned factories. And yet, like the rest of Tie Xi's denizens, he endures--another example of humanity's crazy, heroic resilience.

 
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