The Summer Palace, Beijing. March 2000.
Here’s an technology story that portends civil unrest in China during the this and the next decade: SHENZHEN, July 29 (Xinhua) — Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn will replace some of its workers with 1 million robots in three years to cut rising labor expenses and improve efficiency, said Terry Gou, founder and chairman of the company, late Friday. The robots will be used to do simple and routine work such as spraying, welding and assembling which are now mainly conducted by workers, said Gou at a workers’ dance party Friday night. The company currently has 10,000 robots and the number will be increased to 300,000 next year and 1 million in three years, according to Gou. Foxconn, the world’s largest maker of computer components which assembles products for Apple, Sony and Nokia, is in the spotlight after a string of suicides of workers at its massive Chinese plants, which some blamed on tough working conditions. The company currently employs 1.2 million people, with about 1 million of them based on the Chinese mainland. For more than 60 years, the Chinese Communist Party has been carefully (some say dictatorially) trying to grow the Chinese economy without creating civil unrest resulting from first industrialization and lately a conversion to a capitalistic economy. How to keep the country fed when farmers are tempted to quit the plows for higher paying factory work? How to keep the factory workers happy without slowing down production or causing economic inflation? Etc. The bloody Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 showed just how close to boiling over social unrest is in the People’s Republic of China. If Foxconn, whose workforce is already anxious (some suicidally so), plans to replace a large number of workers with millions of robots, how soon before other Chinese factories similarly replace their own workers. What will such conversions means to the hundreds of millions of factory workers in China. Unemployment. Perhaps there employee retraining programs will be offered, but for hundreds of millions of workers? And to do what? During the early 1800s in Britain, textile workers who were replaced by machines protested and rioted. They were called Luddites, after a figure from English myth. I wonder what will we call the Chinese software factory workers who will be replaced by robots and who will surely protest and riot?