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In recent decades, China has become a manufacturing powerhouse. The country’s official data showed 83 million manufacturing employees in 2002, but that figure is likely to be understated; the actual number was probably closer to 109 million. By contrast, in 2002, the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialized countries had a total of 53 million manufacturing workers. In the late 1990s through the year 2000, China saw declining numbers of manufacturing workers, caused by restructuring and the privatization of State-owned and urban collective-owned factories in the cities. Both massive layoffs of urban manufacturing workers and sharp increases in manufacturing labor productivity ensued. Since then, private-sector manufacturing has thrived in both urban and rural areas of China. The reorganized factories are more productive than State-owned and collective- owned factories and are competitive in the domestic and global economies. China’s manufacturing employment began to rise again after 2000, regaining the upward trend of the period from 1980 to 1995.

This report begins with an overview of China’s statistical system, including a description of the sources of data used in the analysis presented. Three main sources of statistics on China’s manufacturing employment are compared and contrasted, and a hybrid data series is derived that helps evaluate Chinese manufacturing employment levels and trends from 1990 through 2002. The probable biases in China’s statistics on the country’s numbers of manufacturing workers are assessed, both at the national level and in the key export-manufacturing zones.

The analysis emphasizes issues of data quality and the remaining legacies of the command economy reflected in China’s labor statistics. Among the factors included is the excessive focus of China’s published statistics on city manufacturing employees, to the near exclusion of detailed data on the more numerous manufacturing employees working outside the administrative boundaries of cities. Even within the cities, data collection and reporting remain concentrated on the rapidly declining state-owned and urban collective-owned manufacturing enterprises, giving short shrift to the not yet adequately collected or published statistics on the thriving, growing, dynamic private manufacturing sector. A major reason for China’s statistical neglect of the private sector is that the dominance of private and corporate businesses in today’s economy does not fit easily into Marxist theory or Mao Zedong’s ideology.

Because of the many data limitations, a great deal of uncertainty remains in the work presented here. A more exacting analysis awaits new and better data collection and more detailed metadata from China’s statistical system.

The analysis in the current report refers to the People’s Republic of China (mainland China; hereinafter, “China”) and excludes statistics for Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. Occasionally, Chinese terminology will be used, because the standard English translations of the terms are misleading or ambiguous and in some cases because there is no succinct, accurate English translation of the term. A complete glossary of Chinese terms used in this article with their definitions can be found in the Appendix.


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