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In just two decades, however, China's Northeast has gone from dynamo to dinosaur, tracing virtually the opposite trajectory of the country's thriving southern coastal regions. The frenzied economic growth that has propelled Shanghai and the southern province of Guangdong headlong into the global economy has largely bypassed the land of the Iron Man. The region's industrial production has sagged to less than 9 percent of national output, while its heavy reliance on state-owned enterprises—once a blessing, now a curse—has made market-oriented reforms seem like all shock and no therapy. The landscape left behind is not simply the corroded shell of the great socialist experiment but a stark tableau of the most intractable problems China faces in the wake of its unequal boom: Thousands of obsolete state-run factories, millions of laid-off workers, a growing gap between rich and poor, rampant corruption, deadly human and environmental disasters, and, hovering above it all, the specter of social unrest. "The government can't afford to let frustrations boil over in the Northeast," says Li Cheng, a professor at Hamilton College in New York State. "The cost would be too great."

Hoping to reverse this dangerous slide, Beijing has so far spent 7.5 billion dollars to rehabilitate the region, closing or privatizing old state-owned factories while retraining workers for industries more suited to the 21st century: computer assembly, software engineering, even tourism. The real key, however, will be foreign investment. The region that once symbolized China's drive for self-sufficiency is now unabashedly courting foreign investors, notably its former occupiers Japan and Russia. It is too early to tell whether the rust belt can truly be revitalized. But all along Iron Man Wang's route south can be found signs of a region, and a people, struggling for a new future. These are the beginnings of Manchuria's great capitalist experiment.

It is all an illusion, the picturesque scene of twin peaks silhouetted against an azure sky, their upper reaches swathed in wisps of vapor. These mountains on the outskirts of the city of Qitaihe in Heilongjiang Province are not mountains at all but massive heaps of discarded rock and coal coughed up by the mine far below. High on one steep incline, nearly 500 feet up, a scavenger named Chang Mingdong trawls for usable fragments of coal, dodging fresh loads of rock careering down the embankment, sidestepping the coal embers smoldering beneath the surface. Chang has spent nearly half his life—12 of his 29 years—in the dark bowels of the Qitaihe coal mines, performing one of the most dangerous jobs on Earth. Yet he can't afford the coal he needs to heat his own home, especially on winter days like this, when the temperature drops to minus 20°F. So when his shift underground is over, Chang staggers up the mountain with his wife to scavenge for coal.

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