Can Robots Save Dongguan? — Barriers and Incentives to Automation in World’s Factory

Published on: 2017-01-17
Can robots and automation replace manufacturing jobs in China?



Can Robots Save Dongguan? — Barriers and Incentives to Automation in World’s Factory


China’s economy has experienced slower growth since the 2008 financial crisis and it is increasingly evident that its export-oriented, low-end, labor-intensive mode of production is no longer sustainable. In the city of Dongguan, known as the “workshop of the world,” local government recently launched a program called “Replacing Humans with Robots (2014-16)” that allocated an annual fund of 200 million yuan to sponsor firms to upgrade. Qualified recipients needed to show how automation helped them realize workforce downsizing, efficiency increase, quality upgrade, and work safety improvement. What are the incentives and barriers for manufacturers to adopt automation? Does “high-tech” necessarily lead to “high-end” production? How do workers deal with the double-edged effects of work safety improvement and unemployment? This project will explore the extent to which China’s path of automation parallels that of its developed counterparts. In so doing, it will provide important lessons and evidence for other emergent economies that are industrializing rapidly.

About the Speaker

huang yu robots dongguan c
Huang Yu is a postdoctoral fellow at the Division of Social Science, HKUST.

In the past ten years, Huang Yu conducted research on the science extension of shrimp aquaculture in China, trying to understand why farmers were trapped under the dual vicious cycles of value decrease and shrimp mortality that overproduction led to. Afterwards, she spent two years helping farmers establish a shrimp cooperative, but the severe shrimp disease epidemics shattered farmers’ hope of getting prosperous. In 2012-2015, she worked as Assistant Professor at the Anthropology Department of CUHK.

From fall 2015, she has been working as a postdoctoral fellow in collaboration with Prof. Nauhabar Sharif at the Division of Social Science, HKUST. With the sponsorship of HKUST IEMS “Jobs and Development Research Grant 2016,” they draw on theories of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and labor politics to explore the dilemmas that both capital and labor are encountering in China’s robotic revolution.

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Photo by Asian Development Bank / Flickr. CC.

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