China is the twenty-first century’s “workshop of the world,” absorbing natural resources from Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia and exporting manufactured goods, much as England did during its nineteenth-century heyday. China’s extraordinary position in the contemporary global political economy raises the question, “What are the implications of being the twenty-first century ‘workshop of the world’ for the future trajectory of wealth and poverty within China? Optimistic answers to this question rely implicitly on Marx’s famous dictum that “backward” countries can envision their future by looking at the trajectories of the more “advanced.” In this view, China’s industrial prowess would be the harbinger of a more egalitarian social future in which productivity gains spread to the broad mass of the citizenry.
We would like to question this assumption, arguing instead that the implications of becoming the “workshop of the world” are quite different in the twenty-first century than they were in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our argument is simple. In a world where manufacturing technology has become global, the capital intensive “state of the art” quickly becomes the global norm, regardless of the cost of labor in particular locales. This is even more rigorously the case in countries, like China, where ensuring the competitiveness of manufactured exports is a central developmental goal. Such technologically advanced manufacturing cannot absorb the bulk of the non-agricultural labor force, regardless of export success.