The end of cheap China is at hand. Blue-collar labour costs in Guangdong and other coastal hubs have been rising at double-digit rates for a decade. Workers in the hinterland, too, are demanding—and receiving—huge pay increases. China is no longer a place where manufacturers can go to find ultra-cheap hands (see article). Other countries, such as Vietnam, are much cheaper. What will this mean for China and the world?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, it will not mean that companies close their Chinese factories and stampede to somewhere poorer. China is still a terrific place to make things. Labour may be cheaper elsewhere, but it is only one cost among several. Unlike its lower-paying rivals, China has reasonable infrastructure, sophisticated supply chains and the advantage of scale. When demand surges for a particular product, the biggest firms in China can add thousands of extra workers to a production line in a matter of hours.
So China is not about to hollow out. But if it is to keep growing fast, it must become more innovative. At present Chinese innovation is a mixed bag. There are some outstanding private firms. Frugal engineers at private companies such as Mindray, which makes medical devices, and Huawei, a telecoms giant, are devising technologies that are cheaper and sometimes better than their rich-world equivalents. Manufacturers operating near China’s coast, whether home-grown or foreign, are adept at “process innovation”—incrementally improving the way they make things. And China’s internet start-ups, such as Tencent (a social-networking service) and Alibaba (an e-commerce company), have had a genius for copying Western business models and adapting them to the Chinese market.