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Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell

Mar 15, 2022

Invisible China

How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise

University of Chicago Press 2020

As the glittering skyline in Shanghai seemingly attests, China has quickly transformed itself from a place of stark poverty into a modern, urban, technologically savvy economic powerhouse. But as Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell show in Invisible China, the truth is much more complicated and might be a serious cause for concern.

China’s growth has relied heavily on unskilled labor. Most of the workers who have fueled the country’s rise come from rural villages and have never been to high school. While this national growth strategy has been effective for three decades, the unskilled wage rate is finally rising, inducing companies inside China to automate at an unprecedented rate and triggering an exodus of companies seeking cheaper labor in other countries. Ten years ago, almost every product for sale in an American Walmart was made in China. Today, that is no longer the case. With the changing demand for labor, China seems to have no good back-up plan. For all of its investment in physical infrastructure, for decades China failed to invest enough in its people. Recent progress may come too late. Drawing on extensive surveys on the ground in China, Rozelle and Hell reveal that while China may be the second-largest economy in the world, its labor force has one of the lowest levels of education of any comparable country. Over half of China’s population—as well as a vast majority of its children—are from rural areas. Their low levels of basic education may leave many unable to find work in the formal workplace as China’s economy changes and manufacturing jobs move elsewhere.

In Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise (U Chicago Press, 2020), Rozelle and Hell speak not only to an urgent humanitarian concern but also a potential economic crisis that could upend economies and foreign relations around the globe. If too many are left structurally unemployable, the implications both inside and outside of China could be serious. Understanding the situation in China today is essential if we are to avoid a potential crisis of international proportions. This book is an urgent and timely call to action that should be read by economists, policymakers, the business community, and general readers alike.

Scott Rozelle is the Helen F. Farnsworth Senior Fellow and the co-director of the Stanford Center on China's Economy and Institutions in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research at Stanford University. His research focuses almost exclusively on China and is concerned with agricultural policy, the emergence and evolution of markets and other economic institutions in the transition process and inequality, with an emphasis on rural education, health and nutrition.

Rozelle's papers have been published in top academic journals, including Science, Nature, American Economic Review, and the Journal of Economic Literature. He is fluent in Chinese and has established a research program in which he has close working ties with several Chinese collaborators and policymakers. For the past 20 years, Rozelle has been the chair of the International Advisory Board of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy; a co-director of the University of California's Agricultural Issues Center; and a member of Stanford's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and the Center on Food Security and the Environment.

Host Peter Lorentzen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of San Francisco, where he leads a new Master's program in Applied Economics focused on the digital economy. His own research focuses on China’s political economy and governance.

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Peter Lorentzen

Peter Lorentzen is economics professor at the University of San Francisco. He heads USF's Applied Economics Master's program, which focuses on the digital economy. His research is mainly on China's political economy.

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