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Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Gone To China

It does occur to me that the old notice you used to find on the shop door with 'gone to lunch' written on it might now be replaced with a 'gone to China' one. But this joke is really to miss the point. As more people than I care to count have already written: jobs have always been going somewhere or other. Gone from the UK now are most of the jobs in the mining industry: and good riddance most of us might well say. Goodbye, is what we are now saying to the UK call centre jobs: and again ditto. Most of this work is neither pleasant nor attractive, and we should perhaps rather commiserate with the third world that they are attracting many of the less pleasant and less well remunerated work.

However job loss is only one part of the picture: it is job creation which really should be concerning us, that and moving all of us steadily up the value and living standards chain. Of course here things are not so simple. Especially, as I have been pointing out, when it comes to a world where improved use of ICT is making for an ever more globalised labour market, and an ever more accessible knowledge base.

So, back to the topic: the Chinese premier is in the US, jobs will be high on the agenda, and the New York Times starts the ball rolling with this:

When the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, visits the White House on Tuesday, a pressing issue on the American side of the table will be jobs, and the impression, fair or not, that the United States is losing them directly to China.

But as American leaders in both parties complain about lost manufacturing jobs and push for China to revalue its currency, China has its own serious jobs problem. In recent years, the shock therapy of China's economic restructuring has caused huge layoffs at old, unprofitable state-owned factories, while a crowded countryside has too little usable land and too many farmers.

"Unemployment is a severe problem," said Zhong Dajun, who runs an economic research center in Beijing. "It's a problem that is affecting not just ordinary farmers and workers, but even university graduates, who are finding it very difficult to find any work. I don't know if it's going to worsen, but it's bad enough already."

Factory unemployment is highest in the northeastern Rust Belt, where state-owned enterprises have either closed or downsized. Experts estimate that as many as 200 million farmers and rural workers are either unemployed or underemployed in a country of 1.3 billion people. And one report in the state news media found that only half of college graduates got jobs this year, compared with 95 percent in 1997.

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