Manufacturing is where most of the jobs are in China, and thus China is married to its role as the world’s manufacturer, with little recourse for divorcing it to pursue other national interests. However, China’s role as the world’s manufacturer may change in the near future, raining devastating consequences on a country that has sacrificed and adapted its ancient culture, pristine environment, and social system to accommodate an aggressive breed of capitalism even the western world had never witnessed. But this sleight of hand is all dependent upon manufacturing jobs. China’s advantage as a blue chip manufacturing offshore destination has been in its cheap and ever plentiful human labor force that can outwork anyone else in the world. But, with the advent of even more highly sophisticated automated robot systems (combined with rising labor costs, etc.), a game changer may be approaching what was once seen as the inevitable rise of the Chinese economy to #1, worldwide.
This NY Times article, Skilled Work, Without the Worker features four pages of incisive narrative that even demonstrates a nonchalant acceptance of the new automated manufacturing technologies by China’s own manufacturing leaders: “Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.””
And the case is also made that with the introduction of skilled robotic labor comes a new opportunity for Western countries, like the USA, to regain parts of the manufacturing sector once thought to be forever lost to cheap labor countries like China. Robots that can replace human labor levels the playing field so any country might compete for manufacturing, which puts China and its 1.4 billion in the unique position of asking themselves what they would do if manufacturing jobs become outsourced to the machines.
It’s a question manufacturing workers have been asking the USA for a long time, and one that has for some decades been answered with raging debt (housing, student loans, etc.) and throw-back philosophies to more romanticized ideas of what work should look like for societies and citizens. Have you read Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work?
But China is not the USA, with its relatively paltry 300 million people–who might more easily implement micro-economies and resurrect cottage industries in efforts to regain both an economic foothold and a good measure of independence/self-worth–it is a country wholly dependent on the production line and consumption habits around the world. If human labor cedes to a robot army workforce in China, what will the people do? It’s a question we’ve asked throughout the industrial and modern manufacturing eras, but never to the scale of displacing so many.