China and the fourth industrial revolution: a call for collaborative research

Published on 2 June 2023

Jennifer Holdaway, Fellow, International Institute for Asian Studies, University of Leiden
Sarah Cook, Visiting Researcher, Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of Witwatersrand

Recent blogs on this site have called for academic collaboration and policy coordination with China to address global challenges including climate change and biodiversity loss, pandemics and overuse of anti-microbials, and building sustainable food systems. Here we argue for the importance of learning with and from China for navigating the multi-faceted challenges associated with the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

China is investing in and adopting new technologies at remarkable speed, with concerted state policies directed to harnessing them for economic and social progress both domestically and through its Belt and Road Initiative. As a vast economy with huge diversity in environmental conditions and levels of economic development, China provides a microcosm in which to observe the disruptive impacts, challenges and opportunities associated with 4IR across economic sectors, regions and demographic groups.

Transforming how we work

According to a UK Government report on its regulation, 4IR entails the “fusion of technologies including advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and biogenetics”. Building on far-reaching economic transformations already brought about by digitalisation, such technologies will soon be able to perform many tasks associated not only with manufacturing and agriculture but also with professional, para-professional, service and even caring occupations.

Working lives are increasingly mediated through technology, jobs are automated or ‘taskified’, and labour relations restructured through algorithmic management and ‘digital Taylorism’. Technologies are transforming how business is conducted, and how work is remunerated, with growing calls for a Universal Basic Income delinked from employment.

There are of course potential benefits – many humans will be freed from repetitive, exhausting and dangerous labour or from the tedium of working in call centres and warehouses. Medical and other services will be delivered faster and more effectively, and our physical and mental faculties supported and enhanced. Barriers to communication will diminish and new forms of entertainment may emerge.

But the end of work as we know it raises profound social and political questions. How will tax revenue be generated and social security financed if human labour and the income derived from it are no longer a major source of value? How will compensation levels be fixed when education no longer determines an individual’s earning potential, and who will decide what is fair? How should education itself be organised when it is no longer primarily preparation for employment? What will it mean for human well-being and flourishing if work is no longer a major source of self-worth? What are the implications of global ‘tech’ companies for taxation, regulation and ‘corporate responsibility’?

Distributing costs and benefits

The benefits and costs of such transformations will not be equally distributed – across countries or population groups. Countries spear-heading the development of new technologies face competitive pressures for resources and markets, while low-income economies face uncertain pathways to structural transformation.

Currently, a largely invisible digital sweatshop workforce is emerging, training the machines that displace higher quality jobs. Others work in ’clickfarms’ generating revenue through advertising or in low-income platform jobs. At the same time, 4IR technologies depend on materials extracted predominantly from low-income countries, often under exploitative, dangerous and dirty conditions – hampering low carbon transitions and exacerbating global competition for resources. 4IR will thus interact in complex ways with the transition to a low-carbon economy, putting additional downward pressure on employment in some sectors while creating opportunities in others.

Trying to anticipate the implications of these converging pressures must be a critical part of future development strategies. More broadly, teasing out the complex and varied impacts and distributional outcomes, as well as the ethical dilemmas, associated with these transitions will be a massive endeavour requiring the engagement of multiple disciplines and countries. As researchers who have studied the social and environmental impacts of China’s earlier development strategy domestically and beyond its borders, we are convinced there will be much to learn from observing how China navigates these transitions, both internally and in its external relations.

China’s path to a new economy: what can we learn?

First, the sheer size of China’s economy means that what happens there matters for the rest of the world. The impact of these new technologies will affect China’s development trajectory and by extension its ability to be a stable and positive global actor. China’s economic strategy has shifted from early dependence on labour-intensive manufacturing towards higher added value industry and services, replicating the trajectory of early industrialising countries towards knowledge-based economies. But this pathway looks less secure now. Even if China can escape the ‘middle-income trap,’ the new technologies will disrupt all economies, including rich ones.

Second, the transformations and distributional effects associated with 4IR will be spatially differentiated. Because of its regional diversity in environmental conditions, industrial structure and levels of economic development, China provides an excellent opportunity to observe how new technologies, in combination with the low-carbon imperative, will alter the landscape of economic opportunity, as well as flows of capital, people, goods and information. China’s strong state with its history of policy experimentation offers an interesting landscape for cross-referencing with many countries, both developed and developing.

Cities like Shanghai and Beijing are already in the upper middle-income bracket, with economies dominated by services. The introduction of new technologies there will be, if anything, more rapid than in early industrialising countries and a useful reference for them. In China’s Western provinces, education levels are lower and agriculture accounts for a large share of production and employment. The government initially relied on the stepwise transfer of manufacturing from coastal areas, first to central and then to Western regions in an attempt to ‘level them up’. Sequential development through technology transfer is also part of its logic internationally through the Belt and Road Initiative.

But this strategy is less viable as robots and drones replace human labour in many agricultural and industrial roles with net-zero carbon commitments restricting others. The Chinese government has established a massive digital services centre in Guizhou Province and will doubtless invest heavily in other such ‘leapfrog’ initiatives. How these play out will have implications for the economic strategies of low-income countries.

What are the opportunities for engaging with China?

As governments and researchers everywhere scramble to understand and navigate these historic transitions, the potential benefits of dialogue and collaborative research with China are huge. A series of agenda setting meetings with key research institutions and scholars from across disciplines and regions could help to establish a collective conversation around key issues and develop more detailed questions for collaborative research. Critical areas would include:

  • Where and how are new technologies reshaping China’s economy and what are the effects on employment, and on worker compensation across and within sectors?
  • How are the new technologies reshaping the landscape of competition and economic opportunity within China and beyond its borders?
  • What are the new needs for regulation and governance, and how is China navigating these? What lessons can be drawn for different governance systems?
  • What are the implications for social policy: for health and education, for the provision and financing of social security and care, and for how entitlements are determined?
  • How is 4IR shaping China’s global engagement, for example in relation to supply chains, overseas investment, and development cooperation?


Jennifer Holdaway is Affiliated Fellow, International Institute for Asian Studies, University of Leiden and Co-Director, Forum on Health, Environment and Development (FORHEAD).

Sarah Cook is Associate Researcher, Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of Witwatersrand and IDS Honorary Associate.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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