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Research Paper Outline


For my research paper, I would like to study the current labor shortage in urban China. Given China’s massive population as well as its past of surplus migrant labor during the economic reform era, one might assume that China’s rapid economic growth in the past couple of decades would only attract more workers to work in its large cities. However, economists and scholars, starting from the late 2000s have agreed on the opposite; despite continuous economic growth, China has been experiencing migrant labor shortage since the mid-2000s and the issue remains still unsolved.

While much previous literature debates about the nature of such shortages, with some suggesting that these shortages are only seasonal and others insisting that China has passed the Lewis turning point and no longer has surplus rural labor to employ, what makes the topic more interesting are reports about the abundance of labor in China’s rural sector. Migrant wages have increased and working conditions improved in Chinese cities, fitting the description of the Lewis turning point, and I am curious as to why such changes have not enticed migrant workers in the way that less appealing opportunities in urban areas had in the past.

Question and hypothesis

The main question I will try to answer in this paper is the cause of China’s urban labor shortage despite the existence of a pool of potential migrant laborers in rural areas. Are urban jobs no longer desirable or are there new obstacles that did not exist in China’s urbanization phase.

I argue that governmental policies such as China’s hukou system and its one-child policy, along with consequential population trends such as an aging population and decreasing fertility rate are some of the reasons behind the shortage. As of today, the hukou system has loosened greatly and the one-child policy has been abolished and I would like to try to see if the most recent reports and statistics on China’s urban workforce have shown any upwards trends after such changes.

As for the rural surplus, based on preliminary research, I argue that migrant workers’ strong link to their rural communities coupled with increased rural development measures have provided more rural employment opportunities allowed migrant laborers to remain in the countryside.


I. Introduction

II. Background

A. Urbanization:

1. A short section about the influx of migrant workers in Chinese cities after 1978.

2. Focus on the migrant workers’ perspective:

a. Why they wanted to go to the cities for these jobs

b. What the working and living and conditions were

c. Lasting connection of migrant workers to land and family in the countryside

B. Industrialization:

1. Outline the changes China’s economy in the past two decades

2. Focusing on the grievances of the migrant workers:

a. Worsening work conditions and job security for migrant workers

b. Labor strikes

C. Slowdown: Studies show that urban population growth has slowed since the 1990s despite China’s continuous growth, especially since China has become a hotbed for large foreign industries to outsource and a very export-oriented economy. Chinese industries began moving inwards during this time period and I want to record the relationship between rural area development and the slowing urbanization.

D. Literature Review: Contested opinions on the migrant labor shortage (pro vs anti Lewis turning point)

1. Definition and examples

2. China: A popular explanation about the labor shortage seems to be that along with other countries’ developmental paths, China has reached the point where there is no longer any surplus rural labor to fuel continuous development. They argue that China is at a point where they need to and are raising urban wages to create generate more labor supply.

3. Critiques: Other scholars argue that wages have increased significantly and that there is a rural labor surplus.

4. I want to try to reconcile these opinions because arguments form both sides present their own statistical data.

III. Main Arguments

A. Government policies that have a negative impact on urban labor numbers: Explain them, elaborate on the effects on the urban workforce, and talk about recent changes and the impact of those changes

1. Hukou system

a. Direct restrictions

b. Indirect effects on treatment of migrant workers

2. One-child policy

a. Direct impact: now that many families only have one child, does that effect their decision making when contemplating work opportunities?

i. Note: One-child policy is definitely more relaxed in rural areas

b. Aging population and fertility rate decrease

i. Compare China’s current labor market to that of the United States after the baby boomers retired

3. Policies concerning migrant labor, worker conditions, etc.

a. Labor Contract Law, 2008

B. Rural development coupled with worker preference as an explanation to the paradox of urban labor shortage despite rural labor surplus

IIII. Potential case study: If possible, I would like to interview a family friend who has been a construction manager and employer of temporary migrant workers in Shanghai and ask him about the changing availability and working conditions of his employees over the past ten years, whether or not he has been noticing a shortage, and if so, what are the reasons some workers stop coming to Shanghai to work on construction projects.

V. Conclusion

A. Summary of arguments

B. Potential solutions to the shortage:

1. What the Chinese government has done

2. Steps economists and scholars propose


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