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Special Frature: The Changing World of Chinese Labour

Thirty Years of Economic Reform and Workforce Transformation in China

Michel Cartier
Translated by N. Jayaram
p. 27-33


This study starts with the observation that Chinese publications on the workforce refer to two sets of statistics that diverge on a number of points: annual statistical reports take job status into account, while censuses adopt a double classification under branch and type of work. This study seeks to reconcile the two sets of figures to glean a more realistic image of changes in the situation over the last three decades. It shows that China has managed to create more than 250 million new jobs to deal with a difficult demographic situation characterised by major gaps between the expanding generation and the group leaving the workforce. However, after 30 years of reform, the job structure still resembles that of Japan in 1950, with nearly 50 percent of the active population engaged in the primary sector, 20 percent in the secondary sector, and 30 percent in the tertiary sector. There are more than 100 million surplus farmers. Moreover, newly created jobs come with far inferior social protections than in the pre-reform period.

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Electronic reference

Michel Cartier, « Thirty Years of Economic Reform and Workforce Transformation in China », China Perspectives [Online], 2011/2 | 2011, Online since 30 June 2014, connection on 27 May 2017. URL :

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About the author

Michel Cartier

Director of studies at l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (Maison de l’Asie), Paris (Institute of Advances Studies in Social Sciences – Asia House) (

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