Seth Barham Design
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Daqing: Oil City

"In Industry, learn from Daqing."

Such was Mao Zedong's proclamation in the 1960's as part of his Supreme Directive. With one look around the city, it's easy to see why this otherwise inconsequential, frozen swamp-hole in the middle of Heilongjiang province received such hefty praise from the man himself.

The oil is everywhere.

As are the means to extract it. From 1959, when Daqing began to drink its own milkshake, derricks, pump-jacks and refineries have created their own sort of dystopian, industrial forest in lieu of the Heilongjiang plain's notable tree deficit. Labyrinths of pipelines run parallel to the streets and snake their way through apartment blocks. An evening trip to the City Forest Park is a quiet relief from the bustling streets, but you can't escape the low groan of the pump-jacks at work.

The city has expanded just as rapidly as the oil infrastructure, with five major urban districts that have spiderwebbed outward from the oil fields. The pipelines that run along these districts like veins have pumped an absurd amount of wealth into this little city, making it the 26th wealthiest prefecture-level city in China out of 154 others by annual GDP. Taking into consideration that much of that top quarter of the list is dominated by Tier 1 cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, etc, that’s nothing to scoff at.

Urban Districts

Development in Daqing has been something of an urban supernova ever since the oil was found, and the sprawl continues to eat away at the surrounding wetlands despite a looming real-estate bubble. These are the three main urban districts that contain most of the development, although Daqing is set to absorb more into its boundaries in the future.

1) Sartu (萨尔图区) - Sartu District is one of the smallest in Daqing at 549 km2 but it is the most densely populated. It contains Xincun, which is probably one of the more affluent neighborhoods in Daqing, and it’s where I live, not to brag or anything you know… But seriously, I’ve never seen as many luxury vehicles as I have here. Every where you look there are BMWs, Audis, Mercs and Jags. I saw my first ever Bentley and Maserati in person here. And the vast majority of them are driven by new-money douchebags - or tuhaos as they’re known here - that more than likely bought their licenses rather than earned them.

The place to go here is Wanda Department Store, which is about as close to an American mall as you’re going to get here. There’s H&M, Starbucks and even an IMAX theatre that plays the latest films in English. The Daqing TV Tower is nearby and really the best place to go to see just how integrated the oil infrastructure is with the city. If it’s local flavor you’re after, then Sartu market is what you want. You can find anything within the maze of stalls here, from Kevin Klein jeans to matching couple’s outfits, Uighur nan bread to any tea you could hope for. Prepare to bargain.

2) Ranghulu (让胡路区) - Ranghulu was the first district to be founded after the initial oil discovery and has the largest area and population of the three. After driving down the main highway connecting Sartu and Ranghulu - passing through a veritable forest of oil derricks on the way - the otherworldly building of the Iron Man Memorial and Museum is one of the first things that dominates the district. The memorial honors Wang Jinxi, a national hero for his contributions to the petroleum industry.

While the newer Sartu is generally considered the shining city on a hill (if there were hills in Daqing), Ranghulu has more greenery and its Hong Kong Street gives it more of a vibrant city center vibe than anything in Xincun. There are also a few live music bars that have been springing up in recent years in addition to the few pubs that have already been serving imported beers, which every foreigner here will tell you has been a godsend.

3) Longfeng (龙凤区) - Longfeng is the least populated and smallest district as well as the least modern. Much of Daqing’s refinery infrastructure runs through the city in the form of massive pipelines that, in some places, cross major traffic intersections overhead. This is truest in the sleepy neighborhood of Yixi - about a 40 minute taxi ride from Sartu. Pipes wrap around entire communities and fires from the refineries can be seen from the windows of the local kindergarten. Tuk-tuks are generally more common than taxis.

Along with the three above districts, Datong (大同区) and Honggang (红岗区) are officially both urban districts, but they are de facto not really part of the built-up urban area of Daqing proper. Once you hit these areas, after about an hour of travel, population density drops significantly. Anyone who comes here will likely not be venturing anywhere near there (I’ve only been once to each myself in the two years I’ve lived here). All of that said, I would not be surprised if the collective sprawl from these three areas eventually connects all five districts cohesively.

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Dwindling Oil Production

Since 1960, the Daqing field has produced 10 billion barrels of oil and continues to produce 800,000 barrels a day. This makes it the most productive oil field in China by far and the fourth most productive in the world. This aging field alone supplies the country with about a third of its oil production. “Great Celebration” was a pretty apt choice when it came to naming Daqing.

This party may be pooped, however. A steep decline has already begun with the China National Petroleum Corporation (a state-owned body) cutting its normal goals of 40 million tons per year to 32 million by 2020. This cut is expected to reduce Heilongjiang province's GDP by 20 billion yuan ($3.2 billion) and could have a deep impact on local economies throughout the province. Daqing, of course, will most likely bare the brunt of this.

As this decline began, so did a massive corruption scandal. State-owned companies like CNPC are not quick to change and do not possess the equipment required to go deeper into aging fields like Daqing's. Enter private corporations. State officials are under too much scrutiny - especially during Beijing's ongoing anticorruption drive - to skim off some of the profits for themselves, but when private companies get involved, it becomes much easier to accept bribes in return for contracts. Obviously, this doesn't help the future of Daqing.

The Future of Daqing

I'm really not sure what's going to happen here as the oil production is staged down. I'm not sure if the average Daqinger even knows that this is basically already underway. There is no other foreseeable replacement for an industry that generates so much of the annual GDP here, yet the classic "Daqing Spirit" has not dwindled. The city always has this exciting feeling of growth, that feeling of "our city is going places, and it's taking us with it". I don't know if that's going to be enough.

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