Wed, Jun 03, 2015 - Page 8 News List

China’s jobless growth no miracle

By Jin Keyu 金刻羽

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang (李克強) recently cited job creation as vital to his country’s “ultimate goal of stability in growth.”

His observation could not be more accurate. In fact, one of the most baffling features of China’s economic rise is that, even amid double-digit GDP growth, employment grew at a measly 1.8 percent average annual rate from 1978 to 2004. Households, it seems, have largely missed out on the benefits of economic development in China.

The superficial explanation of the discrepancy between GDP growth and job gains attributes the gap to the restructuring of inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which caused public-sector employment to plummet, from 112.6 million to 67 million from 1995 to 2004.

However, there is a more fundamental cause: China’s bias toward industrialization.

China’s government has long viewed industrialization as the key to modernization. During Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Great Leap Forward, scrap metals were melted to meet wildly optimistic steel-production targets to propel rapid industrial development.

Today, the government promotes industrial and infrastructure projects that, by encouraging investment and generating tax revenues, enable the economy to meet ambitious — though no longer harebrained — growth targets.

The problem is that the manufacturing sector does little to create jobs, largely because relatively high productivity growth in the sector — averaging more than 10 percent annually over the past two decades — constrains demand for more workers.

By contrast, China’s services sector has registered only about 5 percent annual productivity growth, and thus is a much more effective engine of job creation.

Services are responsible for the lion’s share of employment in most advanced economies.

However, while 80 percent of the US labor force was employed in service industries in 2012, only 36 percent of China’s workers worked in the sector. To bolster employment in services, China’s government must loosen its regulatory grip, ease barriers to entry in areas such as telecommunications, and encourage labor mobility.

China’s focus on industrial production is problematic in another respect: It is extremely capital-intensive, owing largely to the distortions wrought by government policies.

Beyond keeping interest rates below market levels, the government offered the automobile, machinery and steel industries, among others, preferential access to cheap credit, favorable tax treatment and public investment support. Such policies spurred firms to adopt capital-intensive technologies, obscuring labor’s natural comparative advantages.

At the same time, the government’s interventions have limited the growth of private-sector firms by impeding their access to finance. Though SOEs employ only 13 percent of the total workforce, and contribute about 30 percent of GDP, they absorb half of all investment. Together, banks and the government provide about 35 percent of investment in SOEs, but only 10 percent of investment in private companies.

However, private firms are significantly more labor-intensive than SOEs — which use almost four times as much capital — and thus have been responsible for most of China’s job creation in recent decades.

With average employment growth of 10.4 percent per year, the formal private sector partly compensated for the SOE layoffs from 1995 to 2004. The informal sector grew even faster, at an annual rate of 24 percent, albeit from a low base.

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