China needs foreign workers. So why won’t it embrace immigration?

Of interest:

For hundreds of years China could boast of having more people than any other country. The title became official in the 1950s, when the un began compiling such data. Such a large population conferred on China certain bragging rights. A huge labour supply also helped to boost its annual gdp growth, which has averaged close to 9% over the past three decades.

Last month China’s reign came to an end. India has overtaken it as the world’s most populous country. The demographic trends behind the shift have troubling implications for the new number two. China’s working-age population has been shrinking for a decade (see chart). Its population as a whole declined last year—and it is ageing rapidly. This is likely to hinder economic growth and create an enormous burden of care.

Yet when officials in Beijing mull solutions, one seems largely absent from the discussion: immigration. China has astonishingly few foreign-born residents. Of its 1.4bn people, around 1m, or just 0.1%, are immigrants. That compares with shares of 15% in America, 19% in Germany and 30% in Australia. Place it next to that of other Asian countries which also shun immigration and China’s total still looks measly. Foreigners constitute 2% of Japan’s population and 3% of South Korea’s. Even North Korea has a higher proportion of immigrants than China, according to the un.

China’s future economic and social needs resemble those that have made other societies recruit guest workers. In January the government released a list of 100 occupations, such as salesperson and cleaner, where there is a lack of staff. Over 80% of manufacturers faced labour shortages in 2022, according to one survey. Nearly half of China’s 400m blue-collar workers are aged over 40, reported a study in December. That is in line with an official estimate that China will have trouble filling nearly 30m manufacturing jobs by 2025.

An abundance of young and cheap workers once filled these openings. But as China ages and shrinks that supply of willing labour is drying up. Firms complain of a mismatch between the jobs sought by young people, an increasing number of whom have university degrees, and those available. Many young Chinese do not want to work in factories, laments China Daily, a party mouthpiece. That helps explain why nearly 20% of 16- to 24-year-olds in cities are unemployed.

Source: China needs foreign workers. So why won’t it embrace immigration?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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