Robots, not humans: official policy in China

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Robots, not humans: official policy in China

Robots are a very big part of industry in China. Jenny Chan writes about robots and the future for human workers in China with the example of Foxconn, a big electronics company.

China wants automation. The country is the world’s leading buyer of industrial robots. And it is making more and more of them at home. The government policy is ‘Replacing Humans with Robots’. It plans to replace industries making cheaper things like plastics, toys, furniture, and clothes with high value industries like electronics, cars, infotech, and biotech. It is offering money to support these industries.


‘No more iSlave’: activists at an Apple store opening in Hong Kong, 2011. Foxxcon is Apple’s biggest supplier. Photo: SACOM

The national programme ‘Made in China 2025’ plans to change industry with robots. Productivity per worker must rise – which often means fewer jobs in industry. In the city of Dongguan, which has $30-million a year to help companies, they replaced 87,000 workers with robots between 2014 and 2016. In Zhejiang province, two million lost their jobs between 2013 and 2015.

Doing well

The Taiwanese Foxconn Technology Group is the country’s largest exporter of high-tech electronics and the world’s largest electronics maker. Foxconn has a bad name around the world for bad working conditions in its factories. There are reports of worker suicides in 2010. 14 lost lives did not seem to make any difference to the company. It is doing very well. It had 100,000 workers in 2003 and more than 700,000 in 2008. World economic problems did not stop it growing to a million in 2011 and 1.3 million in 2012.

But in 2015 Foxconn’s total number of workers dropped to around a million, and by the end of 2016 to 873,467. But its yearly profits rose to $4.9 billion. Fortune Global 500 ranks Foxconn 27th, close to

When it replaced 60,000 workers with robots in one factory, Foxconn said to the BBC that it is doing what Beijing leaders want – to improve the technological levels of Chinese workers: ‘We are using robotics engineering and other new technologies to replace repetitive jobs done before by workers. And we are training our workers to do more valuable jobs like research and process control and quality control.’ But most Foxconn workers continue to work day and night with no real chance of doing better jobs. It is more likely that robots will replace them.

Foxconn’s founder and CEO Terry Gou is dreaming of many different kinds of robots, Foxbots. In January 2012, during a week-long planning workshop at its Taipei headquarters, Gou made senior executives watch the Hollywood film Real Steel. The film is about high-tech boxing and steel robots replace human boxers. Gou was excited by this robotic future. He is planning smart cars, big data technology, medical and healthcare electronics, car battery technology, telecommunications services, and retail e-businesses. In July 2014 Foxconn opened new production in Guiyang, the provincial capital of Guizhou in southwest China. He said, ‘We don’t want to go back to traditional, labour-intensive jobs. Simple and boring… We want to rely on high technology. We want efficiency. Technology and efficiency are the new future.’


China leads in industrial robots. Estimates for select countries/regions, in thousands of units.

Working for the machines

And so human workers are doing boring jobs with no future. The human workers are now assistants to the Foxbots, which are quicker and more efficient than humans.

Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi ended his life on 30 September 2014. He was 24 years old. He was from Guangdong, He tried many times to find a new job like working as a librarian in the factory to escape from the boring assembly line. But he failed.

Foxconn is the biggest supplier for Apple. Apple says that it wants to educate and train Foxconn’s workers, and says that ‘every workday should include opportunity’. But one Foxconn worker saw the situation differently: ‘In the production process, workers have the lowest position, even below the machines. Workers come second to the machines, which make them exhausted. But I am not a machine.’

An important part of the ‘Made in China 2025’ plan is for China to invest in vocational training. The Ministry of Education plans to have 23.5 million students in 2929, that is, 50 per cent of senior secondary students, on three-year vocational programmes. But what if student interns are not learning any useful skills? Foxconn used 150,000 of them during the summer of 2010. When big companies control the government programmes to make profits, the robotic future of China and the world will be in a bad place.

The workers who are losing their jobs to automation or want to leave the bad work conditions, are looking for work in China’s growing service sector. But, sadly, low-tech and low-end service sector workers are finding it difficult to earn enough money. And a small number of workers such as IT professionals are earning very high salaries in a digital age. Inequality in jobs is getting worse and temporary and part-time work is now very common.

Jenny Chan is an assistant professor of sociology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and an advisor at Hong Kong-based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM).


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).