China: A hidden workforce and education crisis

| July 9, 2021 | 0 Comments
China's dominance of low-cost manufacturing is waning, which may cause major disruption to the world’s second-largest economy in the medium and long term, according to a new book on the urban-rural divide in the country. Shown here is very urban Shanghai. (Photo: © Inge Hogenbijl |

China’s dominance of low-cost manufacturing is waning, which may cause major disruption to the world’s second-largest economy in the medium and long term, according to a new book on the urban-rural divide in the country. Shown here is very urban Shanghai. (Photo: © Inge Hogenbijl |

One recent, pre-COVID-era Christmas, I searched out the neighbourhood Canadian Tire for an instant-read thermometer, a gift for the cook in the family. There were several types on display, and out of curiosity, I started to scan the “Made in …” labels to see if I could find one not manufactured in China. No luck. I widened my informal survey to other kitchenalia in the store. Again, all made in China.
This would not surprise anyone: China is a global powerhouse of manufacturing. Fully 95 per cent of the world’s major companies have based some of their supply chain there. As a result, China has enjoyed a huge growth spurt in recent decades. But its dominance of low-cost manufacturing is waning, and this may cause severe disruption to the world’s second-largest economy in the medium and long term. This, in turn, will ripple globally.
That’s the warning offered in Invisible China, based on decades of exhaustive on-the-ground research by the Rural Education Action Program (REAP) at Stanford University. Partnered with institutions in China, its mission is to understand poverty in rural China and propose solutions. Its huge web of researchers has travelled and talked to hundreds of thousands of people, focused not in the booming cities of Shanghai or Guangzhou, but in the countryside, where REAP experts strive to understand the lives of the two thirds of Chinese who are not part of the country’s successful urban elite. What they have found over time prompts concern for China’s economic and social future.
China is firmly among what are called middle-income countries — where the aggregate economy is huge, but actual average incomes are still low. The country miraculously and rapidly climbed from poverty into middle-income status through its supply of cheap labour. Unskilled workers — which is what China’s rural population is mostly made up of — were able to shift from subsistence living to better wages through the assembly-line work available as major international companies located production in countries with low costs. But as this plentiful workforce gradually became employed, there was less cheap labour on offer and wages began to rise as a result of simple supply and demand. These same international companies began to either automate to save money, or shift operations out of China. “Samsung has moved hundreds of thousands of jobs from China to Vietnam. Nike is now making most of its tennis shoes elsewhere … That exodus is occurring across the board — in textiles and toys and tools and Christmas decorations,” the authors warn. “Ten years ago, almost every product for sale in an American Walmart was made in China. Today that is no longer the case.”

China’s huge rural workforce is poorly prepared to evolve and thus participate in the higher-skilled jobs now needed to look after individual families and sustain economic growth more broadly. While the country’s highly educated urbanites can fill any number of innovative jobs — think of Chinese companies such as Alibaba “which handles more business than eBay and Amazon combined,” or Tencent, whose social media app WeChat “has earned such a reputation for innovation that Western companies such as Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp now try to copy its features” — China’s 800 to 900 million rural people have nowhere near the education needed to do so.
This leaves the country at a crossroads: It can either find ways to help its huge rural population and boost its economy — emulating, say, South Korea or Taiwan — or it can sink into unemployment and economic chaos — think Mexico or Brazil. In brief, argue the authors, its continued upward trajectory is nowhere near guaranteed. The income gap between rich and poor is vast, and widening, a recipe for destabilization domestically and economic uncertainty globally.

Invisible China: How the urban-rural divide threatens China’s rise
Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell
University of Chicago Press, 2020
242 pages
Kindle: $29.39
Hardcover: $35

A few demographics illustrate the danger. In China, 36 per cent of the population is urban, while 64 per cent is rural, and one’s urban or rural status is cemented in law. “To understand the depth of this divide,” say the authors, “think of China as two separate countries.” To bring them together, China must invest in the rural population. “Human capital” in the rural areas is in dismal shape.
Education of rural Chinese is the solution, but that will be a very tall order, based on what REAP’s studies in the countryside show. For example, only 12.5 per cent of China’s total labour force has a college education: 44 per cent of the labour force in urban areas has at least high school, while only 11 per cent of those in rural areas do (as of 2010.) Bringing the required education to rural Chinese is hugely complicated.
For one thing, Mao Zedong made it his business to suppress higher learning, replacing it instead with Mao Zedong Thought. Until recently, his successors were indifferent to the need to rectify this. For another, high schools in China charge tuition (often prohibitive for poor rural families). Considering the nation’s communist roots, it is an odd problem to have. But other, even graver crises beset rural Chinese families who want to educate their young. Over decades of exhaustive study, REAP has found:
• More than 50 per cent of rural babies are undernourished and under-stimulated, at the very time when their brains are beginning to develop. “More than half of toddlers are so developmentally delayed that their IQs may never exceed 90,” the researchers conclude;
• Students are often beset with parasites: “40 per cent of schoolchildren in many rural communities in southern China attend school every day with intestinal worms quietly sapping their energy.” When researchers asked why the children weren’t treated, they found an array of inaccurate beliefs, even among rural doctors — for example that deworming might reduce fertility in females;
• Of the thousands of youngsters studied, “More than 30 per cent of rural students (in grades four to eight) have vision problems, but do not have glasses.”
In short, “one source of China’s persistent rural-urban education gap has become clear: rural students in today’s China are sick. They are anemic, they can’t see the blackboard, and they have worms.”
It is a startling conclusion about a country most of us see as churning out a sophisticated, highly intelligent, educated and globalized workforce. But that is the point. This is the “invisible” China the rest of the world does not glimpse. The sheer size of this invisible population and the time and effort it will take to bring it up to the educational and health standards of the urban sector is what so alarms the authors.
Fundamentally, however, they believe China can fix this and avoid the “middle income trap” and they stress that the country’s current leadership is trying. This book, the researchers say, is “written in the spirit of hope” about a country that has often surprised the world with its accomplishments. The global economy may depend on it doing so again.

The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War
John Boyko
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2021
246 pages
Hardcover: $29.45
Kindle: $15

The Vietnam War involved many Canadians. Those who think Canada was just a haven for draft dodgers need to read The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War. (Photo: U.S. Information agency)

The Vietnam War involved many Canadians. Those who think Canada was just a haven for draft dodgers need to read The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War. (Photo: U.S. Information agency)

Canadians’ collective memory of Vietnam tends to focus on two images: anti-war protests in the United States and draft-dodgers seeking refuge here. These images only scrape the surface of Canada’s much deeper involvement in that conflict.
“There were Canadians in Vietnam fighting and dying in American uniforms,” John Boyko writes. “Others were working in Canadian-run hospitals; and there were Canadian diplomats in Vietnam who tried to stop the war before it began, and then monitored its carnage. There were Canadian weapons in Vietnamese cities, villages and jungles and falling from the sky.” Canadians weren’t just bystanders.
In the 1950s, Vietnam was viewed through the lens of the larger Cold War dominating Western thought. That, mixed with French colonial ambitions and the region’s own long history, made Vietnam a complex geopolitical problem, a “civil war, nationalist war of liberation and European colonial war.” Canada, which had emerged from the Second World War flush with pride at its own diplomatic “golden age,” had shed much of its lingering dependence on Britain and entered the U.S. orbit. It would inevitably be drawn into attempts to stop a larger conflict in Indochina.
Boyko, a gifted storyteller, conveys Canada’s involvement from the perspective of six “guides”: two diplomats; a hospital administrator; a draft dodger; a Canadian who fought in the Vietnam war; and a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in Canada. Each illuminates a particular facet of Canada’s Vietnam war.
The two extraordinary Canadian diplomats were Sherwood Lett and J. Blair Seaborn, whom Canada sent off on separate occasions to the ill-fated International Commission for Supervision and Control, charged with monitoring the uneasy ceasefire between the French and the Vietminh in 1954, with elections planned for 1956. The ICC, as it became known, was made up of India, Poland and Canada. It had no power to enforce peace or to interfere as the former adversaries clashed over resources, prisoner transfers, the migration of people from the country’s North to South or even ownership of leftover military equipment. The work was dangerous and frustrating. In the end, no election was permitted, as the West (read the U.S.) feared it would end in a Communist takeover. Lett believed that if an election did not unite North and South, the North would invade to bring about that result. Sadly, his was a neglected voice.
By the early 1960s, a fragile peace somehow still existed and the Americans, who had been actively and clumsily trying to subvert a Communist takeover were searching — or so Canada thought — for a way out of Vietnam. There was no American ambassador in Hanoi and no back channel of communication, so Seaborn, Canada’s new ICC commissioner, was pressed into service as the U.S.’s go-between, meeting with the highest echelons of the North Vietnamese leadership on behalf of president Lyndon Johnson’s team. Boyko’s description of Seaborn’s role — and how both this gifted diplomat and his government were used by the U.S. in a futile bid for an American-dictated outcome — is illuminating. Equally so are his chapters devoted to the other Canadians:
• Claire Culhane, who worked as an administrator in a Canadian hospital in Vietnam, only to discover that the head doctor was sharing patient files with the CIA to help it identify Viet Cong or their sympathizers. She would return home to become a vocal and effective anti-war activist;
• Joe Erickson, the American war resister who journeyed north as one of up to 100,000 U.S. citizens who left friends, family and prospects for Canada rather than serve in a war they did not support. They formed a modern day “underground railroad” to help other draft dodgers immigrate. He later learned that his relatives still in the U.S. were repeatedly harassed by the FBI for his actions;
• Doug Carey, the Canadian who enlisted in the Marines at age 19, serving two tours in Vietnam. Anywhere from 12,000 to 40,000 Canadians fought in the Vietnam War;
• Rebecca Trinh, one of thousands of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam who, fearful of persecution after the fall of Saigon, made the tough decision to leave. With her children, she was among 160,000 Vietnamese who fled their country between 1978 and the mid-1980s, a harrowing journey that, in the Trinhs’ case, included being attacked by pirates on the open sea, swimming frantically to Malaysian shores and, eventually, being accepted from a refugee camp by Canada. By the end of 1980, Canada had accepted 60,000 refugees, more per capita than any other country.
Boyko draws lessons from each story of this war — how it affected our diplomacy, our economic interests, our emerging identity as a separate nation, our humanitarian policy and our international reputation. His eloquent summary is tinged with hope and warning: “ … the lies and lessons of the Vietnam War will forever colour our national story. They will be among the sparks igniting our perpetual desire to more clearly understand who we are and to somehow, hopefully with grace, make ourselves a little better tomorrow than we are today.”

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need
Bill Gates
Alfred A. Knopf Canada
272 pages
Kindle: $17
Paperback: $33.15

Children march down University Avenue in Toronto as part of the Global Strike for Climate Justice. Bill Gates’s new book outlines how hard it is to address this monstrous problem.

Children march down University Avenue in Toronto as part of the Global Strike for Climate Justice. Bill Gates’s new book outlines how hard it is to address this monstrous problem.

Bill Gates thinks nuclear power is essential to solving climate change. He’s a big fan of plastics too. Also, he’s a rich and powerful man who adores technology. These views do not endear him to some environmentalists.
So How to Avoid a Climate Disaster may not get the respect it should. Yet, as a simple user guide to the second-most pressing problem of our time (COVID being No. 1 for now), it fills an important niche: laying out the dangers of climate change; explaining where greenhouse gas emissions come from; discussing the individual and policy challenges of achieving “net zero” emissions and offering potential solutions.
A brief excerpt, to get your attention: “Did you brush your teeth this morning? The toothbrush probably contains plastic, which is made from petroleum, a fossil fuel. If you ate breakfast, the grains in your toast and cereal were grown with fertilizer, which releases greenhouse gases when it’s made. They were harvested by a tractor that was made of steel — which is made with fossil fuels in a process that releases carbon — and ran on gasoline. If you had a burger for lunch, as I do occasionally, raising the beef caused greenhouse gas emissions — cows burp and fart methane — and so did growing and harvesting the wheat that went into the bun. If you got dressed, your clothes might contain cotton — also fertilized and harvested — or polyester, made from
ethylene, which is derived from petroleum. If you’ve used toilet paper, that’s more trees cut down and carbon emitted.”
All of this before you even jump into your gas-guzzling SUV, turn on your air conditioner or crank the furnace.
Gates’s point is that even the most mundane acts of everyday life are underwritten by fossil fuels. Why? Because they’re affordable, “cheaper than a soft drink.” Add up all that cheap fuel and you get a planetary total of 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere every year. Cue the rising thermometer.
The solution, Gates says, is not just about cutting our energy use, for we will never be able to cut it enough. His evidence: the dip in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide during COVID in 2020. With economies slowing, that reduction amounted to about five per cent of GHGs worldwide — putting us at 48 or 49 billion tonnes of carbon, instead of 51. To get even that modest reduction, “a million people died, and tens of millions were put out of work,” he writes. “To put it mildly, this was not a situation that anyone would want to continue or repeat.”
Another complication is that a large swath of the planet, still struggling with poverty, will need more energy in future, not less, in order to thrive like the rest of us. We cannot hold people from developing countries in poverty. So for Gates, the central question is: How do we produce more energy but ensure we release fewer “net” GHGs in the process?
Our worldwide emissions come from five different activities: How we plug in (that is, where we get our electricity) — 27 per cent of 51 billion tons per year; how we manufacture (everything from steel to concrete to clothing) — 31 per cent of 51 billion tons per year; how we farm — 19 per cent of 51 billion tons a year; how we move around (and how we move things around) — 16 per cent of 51 billion tons a year; and how we warm or cool our buildings — seven per cent of those 51 billion tons.
Gates, who has an engineer’s love of numbers, supplies several discouraging facts, such as:
• Making one ton of steel produces about 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide. And cement? “Make a ton of cement, and you’ll get a ton of carbon dioxide.”
• The one billion cattle raised worldwide burp and fart out enough methane each year to have the same warming effect as two billion tons of carbon dioxide (about four per cent of all global emissions).
• Reforestation is no panacea. “You’d need somewhere around 50 acres’ worth of trees, planted in tropical areas, to absorb the emissions produced by an average American in her lifetime.”
• Gallon for gallon, gasoline is less expensive than “Dasani bottled water, yogurt, honey, laundry detergent, maple syrup, hand sanitizer, latte from Starbucks, Red Bull energy drink, olive oil” and so on.
• Given how long today’s furnaces last, “if we had a goal of getting rid of all the gas-powered ones by mid-century, we’d have to stop selling them by 2035.”
Clearly, solutions need to involve all aspects of human activity, and Gates dutifully examines many, explaining how he thinks both individuals and governments can reduce greenhouse gas use, and where technology must play a role. He walks readers through everything from solar to wind power and even geoengineering — radical technology through which scientists actually change the atmosphere’s temperature by techniques such as seeding the upper atmosphere with extremely fine particles or brightening clouds to reflect rather than absorb heat.
As a technology fan, he’s open to considering solutions many others would dismiss.
Plastics, for instance, pollute and hurt marine life, but are not making climate change worse, Gates says. Indeed, an inconvenient truth is that plastics are “what allow fuel-efficient cars to be so light; they account for as much as half of a car’s total volume, but only 10 per cent of its weight.” And because they take so long to degrade, the carbon used in their manufacture doesn’t leak into the atmosphere easily. If manufactured with clean energy in future, “plastics could one day become a carbon sink — a way to remove carbon rather than emit it,” Gates muses.
Meanwhile, back to nuclear power, which Gates calls “the only carbon-free energy source that can reliably deliver power day and night, through every season, almost anywhere on Earth, that has been proven to work on a large scale.” The U.S. currently gets around one-fifth of its electricity from nuclear, and it already runs aircraft carriers and military subs using nuclear power. France gets 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear, the highest proportion of any country.
This doesn’t mean that nuclear power isn’t dangerous, but Gates sees the hazards as a solvable problem. Acknowledging Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, he says “real problems led to those disasters, but instead of getting to work on solving those problems, we just stopped trying to advance the field.
“Imagine if everyone had gotten together one day and said, ‘Hey, cars are killing people. They’re dangerous. Let’s stop driving and give up these automobiles.’ That would’ve been ridiculous, of course. We did just the opposite: We used innovation to make cars safer.” We can do the same with nuclear power, Gates argues. “It’s hard to foresee a future where we decarbonize our power grid affordably without using more nuclear power.”
Not all environmentalists will like this message. But given Gates’s exhaustive exposition of the sources, problems, costs and strategies for climate change to-date, they’ll need to come up with better — and achievable — ideas.


How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island
Egill Bjarnason
Penguin Random House, May 2021
288 pages 
Kindle and paperback: $13.96

“The Icelanders are the most intelligent race on Earth, because they discovered America and never told anyone,” Oscar Wilde said. The glory for that, of course, would be left to other Europeans centuries later. But Iceland has had global impact in other important ways: in this light-hearted and entertaining history (which starts with a ship hitting an iceberg — no, not that ship), Egill Bjarnason lays it all out.
For instance, world chess greats Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer played their “match of the century” in Iceland in 1972. Iceland doubled as the lunar landscape for much of NASA’s astronaut training for the moon landings. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavík in 1986. And don’t forget the 2010 volcanic eruptions in Iceland that halted air traffic all across Europe. Plus, fun fact: Iceland contributed the word “saga” to the English language.
Who knew that an island half the size of the United Kingdom, referred to by the author as an early “hot spot for Viking sprawl” had such an eclectic story? Iceland has, indeed, changed the world.

In Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics 
Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford
Cambridge University Press, 2020
408 pages
Kindle: $12.94
Paperack: 24.12

Five years ago, when Britons unexpectedly voted to leave the European Union, a headline in The Daily Mirror shrieked: “What the hell happens now?” The rest of the world, meanwhile, was asking how the hell it had happened at all.
The authors of Brexitland confront both questions by going back not months or years, but decades to identify the demographic trends and identity conflicts that led to the startling results of the EU referendum, and explaining how these finally cut through more traditional dividing lines of class, income and political ideology.
They wonder, for instance, why the tensions that drove Brexit didn’t break into the open much earlier than 2016. Brexit, they conclude, is only a small taste of what lies ahead for the United Kingdom — major disruption “for many years to come.”

Global Taiwanese: Asian Skilled Labour Migrants in a Changing World
Fiona Moore
University of Toronto Press
184 pages
Kindle: $45.58
Hardcover: $46.33
184 pages

Taiwan is a successful democratic state of about 23.4 million people, sitting uncomfortably close to a rapidly expanding superpower that threatens it economically, politically and militarily based on a deep shared history. Yet the island state has another interesting characteristic, highlighted by Fiona Moore: an effective transnational network of skilled migrants living and working across borders.
As the author points out, the “idea of a network society has been around for 20 years,” but study of it still skims the surface. An examination of its members in London, Toronto and Taipei goes beyond observations on skilled-worker migration and the role of diasporas to explore how Taiwanese at home and abroad identify themselves and act on those identities.

Christina Spencer is the editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen and the inaugural recipient of the Claude Ryan Award for Editorial Writing at the 2017 National Newspaper Awards. She has a master’s in international affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

Be Sociable, Share!


Category: Delights

About the Author ()

Christina Spencer is the editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen and the inaugural recipient of the Claude Ryan Award for Editorial Writing at the 2017 National Newspaper Awards. She holds a master's in international affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *