CHANGMINGZHEN, China — The smell, salty and pungent, wafts through the freshly paved streets near the gleaming new factory.
The factory is owned by a company called Laoganma, which makes a piquant chili-and-soybean sauce famous across China for its power to set mouths watering. In a time of global pandemic, when the jobs of working people around the world hang in the balance, the factory’s scents signal opportunity.
Since it opened in March, when China was still in the grip of Covid-19, the factory has struggled to find enough machinery operators or quality control technicians. Now workers are flocking to Changmingzhen, a once-quiet farming town ringed with green mountains and rice paddies, from which young people once fled for better jobs elsewhere.
Changmingzhen stands as a testament to China’s stunning post-coronavirus revival — one powered by the callused hands of the country’s factory and construction workers. With few exceptions, the rest of the world remains in a pandemic-driven malaise. But when China reports economic figures for 2020 on Monday, they are expected to show its economy grew despite losing early weeks to the lockdown.
On a recent evening, workers flush with money left the factory at shift’s end and flooded nearby market stalls looking for hand-cut noodles, bananas and mandarin oranges. The family-owned company pays its production workers up to $1,200 a month. “Not bad for workers our age,” said Wang Mingyan, an employee leaving her shift.
The slight 50-year-old said she received a rent-free apartment, free cafeteria meals and other benefits, as Laoganma competes with other companies for workers. The menu isn’t always to her liking, but that’s a small price to pay.
“When you’re away from home,” said Ms. Wang, who moved from her hometown more than two hours away, “you just fill your stomach.”
China froze a $15 trillion economy last February. It used brute force to isolate cities and provinces and drag people into quarantine.
Beijing turned to the same set of blunt tools to get the economy going again. It ordered factories to reopen and state-run banks to lend. It told state-run companies to restart.
Now the economy is charging ahead. Government subsidies are fueling new rail lines and factories. One state-owned company, a would-be competitor to Boeing and Airbus, says it will invest $3 billion in 22 big construction projects.
The government’s role makes China’s revival distinctly blue collar. The state’s levers are most effective when it comes to restarting big factories or big construction projects. It has long focused on keeping the working class happy for fear of the sorts of upheavals that have upended politics in the United States and Europe.
Beijing has a harder time fixing other problems. Shoppers remain skittish, and may become more so as the virus has resurfaced in several cities lately. Its economy still relies less on innovation and services than on making stuff. Legions of…
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