china looks like the united states one hundred years ago. and china looks like the united states three decades ago. and china and the united states mirror each other now. the asian country has seen different changes and trends, both economic and social, compressed together in a way that echoes the development of the united states economy but varies radically.
the chinese government made two important announcements recently: the government will ease restrictions on the national one-child policy and will abolish labor re-education camps.
the one-child per family policy has always been contentious internationally. passed in the 70s, the law reflects a consciousness by the government of a problem that has beleaguered chinese governments for centuries. in europe and north america, where population rates hover around zero or lower, many see the policy as unfair, a violation of human rights. reporting on the change in the law points out the shift may be more than an apologia on human rights. a labor shortage haunts china.
damien ma and william adams have written about the labor shortage in china for foreign affairs:
“By early 2010, job postings began to outnumber jobseekers for the first time since the start of China’s resource-intensive economic boom at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a period we call the Panda Boom (after that cuddly creature’s voracious habit of eating 10–15 percent of its body weight in bamboo each day).”
since the industrial revolution in the united states and western europe, the economies in these countries have seen a similar shift. as once workers pressed for jobs in factories and the population (particularly in america) changed from an agrarian civilization to an urban workforce, the labor pool grew immensely and unemployment grew. however, post-world war ii prosperity, with the export of american products and culture, changed the labor market in america, shifting production overseas as it followed cheaper labor.
china currently finds itself in a similar position. even before the global recession, china couldn’t meet the entire global demand for cheap labor even with its massive populations. factories in india, malaysia, indonesia, thailand, cambodia, and bangladesh provided more, and often cheaper, labor for factories producing merchandise for north america and europe. and ma and adams note that in China “Occupational safety, collective bargaining rights, and other costly labor protections were vastly less important, and summarily ignored,” but this was a problem both countries have faced in their history.
chinese growth and prosperity during the last few decades has created a bubbling middle class with extra income to spend and a desire for something more for themselves and the next generation. even during the recession, ma and adams note that chinese wages grew faster than gdp. the writers also point out that, “From 2000 to 2010, the number of young people enrolling in higher education programs rather than entering the workforce after high school tripled, growing from 2.2 million to 6.6 million.” this greater population of educated citizens points to a larger affluence but also indicates a growing population that will look for work outside low-paying factory work, adding to china’s labor shortage.
as china comes into its own as a middle class country, the united states struggles to maintain its economic status quo. china has enacted seemingly extreme measures to control its population and provide prosperity, measures that seem unreasonable from the comfort of our middle class stability. we should not forget the negligence, violence, and instability of our own past when attempting to understand the quick and momentous transformation currently taking place in china.