2013 was a banner year for uncalled for expansion of China’s borders, from the Senkaku Islands Air Identification Defense Zone to a state TV show claiming the entirety of the Philippines for China. But on the economic front, China plans an expansion of a completely different kind: the use of robots to make manufacturing even cheaper.
Canada’s Globe and Mail has a feature out this week on China’s increased push to replace human labor with automated work. While China boasts some of the cheapest labor in the world–hence their domination of the manufacture of many simple to make items–salaries are, by necessity, increasing. This, argues author Scott Barlow, is pressuring the Chinese government to stay competitive economically with other nations by suppressing the growing wages. And to do that, he continues, businesses need to hire fewer people.
The Globe and Mail‘s business team has been on the forefront of covering the shift from human laborers to robotics in the global economy, first reporting last December on the increase in their presence in our lives. Within the next 15 years, predicts that article, “robots will increasingly being to populate a new domain– the physical realm.” An example: a restaurant in China that fully gave up on using waiters and waitresses and employs “20 life-size robots” to cook and serve meals.
One of the easiest ways to use machines to manufacture what was previously the purview of humans is 3D printing, a developing phenomenon that The Week reported this week is very much in the aim of Chinese industry. The reason for such a passion for automated manufacturing is the same as for the increased use of robots: China is simply not the cheapest place for corporations to send their unskilled labor anymore, and the Chinese government is panicking.
That is not to say that the collapse of the Chinese economy is imminent–far from it. As John Aziz explains in The Week, “Automation in manufacturing is increasing, so high labor costs may begin to matter much less for businesses deciding where to manufacture. And oil and thus transportation prices are also relatively expensive again, so distance to the consumer may start to matter more.”
The increased use of artificial intelligence and automated labor might have an impact far from the economic realm for the population of China, however: human rights. China is so notoriously dismissive of human rights concerns that the country was applauded for joining the rest of the industrialized world in shutting down forced labor camps last December. Many workers in China’s equivalent of a private sector work more hours a day than is healthy for a human being and live in unparalleled squalor, in underground bunkers or abandoned buildings. They also work in conditions so polluted that “smog alerts” are a part of Beijing life and the World Health Organization has noted that breathing the air in Beijing is patently unsafe.
These laborers might escape their lives if fired from their jobs and replaced by robots. What they will do to earn their daily bread once released is another story–a series of human rights violations and anecdotes of unconscionable poverty are waiting to happen. How China will address the potential for this new problem, if at all, remains to be seen–but for now, they are doing everything in their power to stay competitive on a global scale.