Published: September 2006


Worker Factory

Manchurian Mandate

China Looks to a New Generation of Model Workers to Revive its Decaying Industrial Heartland.

By Brook Larmer
Photograph by Fritz Hoffmann

There is no turning back. That much, Iron Man knows.

The bus is starting to roll down the rutted dirt road in Dongfa village, carrying the young worker and his wife away from this ghost town near the Russian border. The couple squeeze into the backseat, she carrying a bright blue gym bag, he the dull burden of history. Twenty-six years ago, his parents named him Wang Tieren, or Iron Man Wang. It was a tribute to the communist icon whose selfless toil symbolized the industrial muscle of China's Northeast, a region whose state-run factories and furnaces fueled the communist dreams of the People's Republic. The new Iron Man on the bus—silent, gaunt, a look of worry wrinkling his freckled brow—embodies the same region but in a challenging new era: Even as other parts of China flourish in the mad rush toward a market economy, once proud Manchuria (as the area is known abroad) has fallen on hard times; it, like Iron Man Wang himself, is desperately searching for salvation.

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