SPECIAL REPORT | Heralding Social, Financial Change, China aims blow at "Iron Rice Bowl"

China's "Iron Rice Bowl" system was launched in 1951. Many state-owned firms began life as government bureaus and frequently acted as microstates responsible for the entire social infrastructure of a region.

By David Stanway

Image Attribute: Employees work inside a factory of Pingmei Shenma Group in Baofeng County, Henan province, China, April 8, 2015. The picture was taken April 8, 2015. China Daily/via REUTERS

Image Attribute: Employees work inside a factory of Pingmei Shenma Group in Baofeng County, Henan province, China, April 8, 2015. The picture was taken April 8, 2015. China Daily/via REUTERS

PINGDINGSHAN, China (Reuters) - China has ordered state firms to smash the decades-old system of providing cradle-to-grave welfare support, known as the country's "iron rice bowl".

But the order, part of a plan to reduce financial pressure on bloated and heavily indebted state-owned enterprises (SOEs), is likely to be easier said than done as cities navigate the social and financial wrenches the changes will cause.

At the heart of soot-covered Pingdingshan in central China is the Pingmei Shenma Group, a state coal conglomerate that dominates the economy, society and air of the heavily polluted city in Henan province.

Apart from coal, it has chemicals and construction businesses. But it also has a startling number of other responsibilities.

It operates 41 hospitals and 18 schools and provides pensions, subsidized housing for workers, water, heating, and power. It even runs a plush retirement home, complete with golf course, for its senior managers.

The fate of these facilities, landmarks for the city's residents, is now unclear. If they are not closed down, much of the infrastructure will need to be renovated, which State Council researchers estimate will cost more than 1 trillion yuan ($115 billion) nationwide.

Some of Pingdingshan's hospitals already had fewer miners to treat after capacity cuts in coal production.

"We can only try to provide better services," a doctor, who only wanted to be identified by his surname Li, said at a small outpatient clinic near Pingmei Shenma's defunct Number Seven coal mine.

"Though this is a big place, we are far away from the city center, there is no good transportation and it isn't convenient for ordinary people to come," Li said.

Beijing has given SOEs until 2020 to ditch their "social functions". For Pingdingshan, the deadline is more imminent because Henan wants to complete the process by the end of 2017 under a pilot project, putting it in the spotlight not only of Beijing but also other provinces facing similar challenges.

While state firms in wealthier regions of the country moved away from paying for social welfare services some years ago, poorer provinces and especially one-company towns like Pingdingshan struggled to make the switch given the central role their SOE played.

"Removing social functions and resolving the problems left behind by history is an important condition for SOEs to become market entities," Xiao Yaping, head of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, said on the institution's website.

China's SOEs accumulated total debts of 85.3 trillion yuan by the end of September, in a credit splurge encouraged by Beijing following the global financial crisis. Executives have repeatedly called on Beijing to help reduce their costs.

China's central government-administered SOEs run around 8,000 units providing community services, and the efforts to ditch them could also increase a firm's redundancy and labor redeployment costs, especially as authorities try to limit unrest in regions already hit by an economic downturn.

They spend 850 billion yuan a year on schools, pensions, and other "social functions". Local government-run firms pay, even more, a delegate to China's parliament said in March.

In Henan, state firms spend 800 million yuan a year just to supply residents with heating, water, and electricity.

CUTTING THE CORD

While the economic slowdown and a fall in commodity prices have done the most damage to China's lumbering SOEs, expensive "social functions" have also contributed to punishing losses in recent years.

"Today, when we are creating world class energy enterprises and competing against global firms, continuing to bear these heavy burdens is obviously outmoded and hard to sustain," said Halidan Abdulla Kader, a legislator from the northwestern frontier region of Xinjiang.

China's "iron rice bowl" system was launched in 1951. Many state-owned firms began life as government bureaus and frequently acted as microstates responsible for the entire social infrastructure of a region.

The first cracks appeared in 1986 when a rapidly modernizing China introduced new pension schemes and put an end to permanent tenure at state firms. By 1995 it was calling for the systematic transfer of "social functions" in preparation for radical SOE reforms that closed thousands of bankrupt firms and led to more than 20 million layoffs.

Poorer provinces struggled to make the switch, especially in remote mining regions where the SOE was the only source of political authority.

Neither the Pingdingshan government nor the provincial authorities would respond to requests for comment.

In a document sent to Pingmei Shenma and other state firms in Henan, local regulators warned that some health and education facilities would be shut down if they were not economically viable.  "Where there is duplication they will close them down," said a doctor surnamed Liu at an independent clinic near one of Pingmei Shenma's mines. "There are a lot of small pits that need to be closed and after they close, their medical institutions will go too."

Pointing to the challenges ahead, State Council researchers said the cost of transferring social functions to a local authority was as much as 4.3 billion yuan for the Longmay Group, a struggling state coal producer in northeast China's Heilongjiang province. That compared with annual running costs of 300 million yuan.

The Kailuan Group, a coal producer in Hebei province, needs around 4.6 billion yuan to upgrade heating, water and power facilities to acceptable standards before transferring them, one estimate showed.

INSECURITY

In Pingdingshan, teacher Zhang Kai is already experiencing change. Operational rights for the kindergarten where she works have shifted from the local coal mine to the staff of the school.

It must now stand on its own feet as a commercial business, Zhang said.

"Every mine has a kindergarten and every situation is different," she said. "We don't really know what's going to happen next."

At its peak, Pingmei Shenma's Number Seven Mine employed 8,000 workers. Now, around 500 miners turn up at the pit on a reduced wage of just 410 yuan ($60.52) a month while the company tries to find jobs for them at other state mines. In the meantime, they while away the time playing cards.

"We worry the most about whether we have jobs or not," said one of them, a 51-year old miner who gave his name as Chen.  Sitting in the gatehouse of the mine, Chen lifted his shirt to show the scars from a kidney operation, paid for by his company insurance that he assumes is no longer provided.

"When the company's performance gets worse, it doesn't pay health insurance. We haven't been getting it for several years," he said. "After the closure of the mine, a lot of the old welfare we get just isn't going to exist."

 Image Attribute: An employee works inside a factory of Pingmei Shenma Group in Baofeng County, Henan province, China, April 8, 2015. China Daily/via REUTERS

Image Attribute: An employee works inside a factory of Pingmei Shenma Group in Baofeng County, Henan province, China, April 8, 2015. China Daily/via REUTERS

(Additional reporting by Shanghai Newsroom; Editing by Neil Fullick)

(C) 2016 Thomson Reuters
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IndraStra Global: SPECIAL REPORT | Heralding Social, Financial Change, China aims blow at "Iron Rice Bowl"
SPECIAL REPORT | Heralding Social, Financial Change, China aims blow at "Iron Rice Bowl"
China's "Iron Rice Bowl" system was launched in 1951. Many state-owned firms began life as government bureaus and frequently acted as microstates responsible for the entire social infrastructure of a region.
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