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Invisible China

How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise

Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell

Invisible China

Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell

248 pages | 5 figures, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 9780226739526 Published October 2020
E-book $27.50 About E-books ISBN: 9780226740515 Published October 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, 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.

Author’s Note


1. The Middle-Income Trap
2. China’s Looming Transition
3. The Worst-Case Scenario
4. How China Got Here
5. A Shaky Foundation
6. Invisible Barriers
7. Behind Before They Start

Appendix: The REAP Team
Review Quotes
James Fallows, author of Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China
"Invisible China is an important, clearly argued, and original work. It presents a side of China that is all too evident to hundreds of millions of people living there, but that often escapes notice internationally. Anyone interested in China's economic and political future, and its impact on the world, will want to read this book."
Hongbin Li, James Liang Director of the China Program, Stanford University
“No one knows rural China better than Scott Rozelle. In this brilliant, original, thought-provoking, and important study, Rozelle and Natalie Hell not only make China’s potential human capital crisis visible, but provide actionable solutions based on rigorous research.”
James Liang, chairman and cofounder of Ctrip
“Professor Rozelle is a renowned economist specializing in early childhood education and rural development, and his book on rural China is a culmination of over twenty years of research on rural China, which has generated intense interest among policymakers and philanthropists. He convincingly argues that intervention into early childhood education is the most effective way of reducing the inequality that is a problem not only in rural China but in many parts of the world.”
Barry Naughton, School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego
This is the most readable and compelling economics book of the year, and probably the most important. From the opening pages, a clear and compelling argument unfolds: China faces a labor quality crisis, as hundreds of millions of young rural workers lack the education and robust health they need to participate in China's emerging high tech economy. Nobody who cares about China can afford to ignore Invisible China.”
Pietra Rivoli, Georgetown University
“This book is an important contribution to the study of China. China’s size and linkages with other economies mean that the arguments and data presented here have wide-ranging importance. There is still time to avoid the ‘doomsday’ outcome if policy shifts in China, and Rozelle and Hell’s work is poised to have a real impact if its message is heeded.”—Pietra Rivoli, Georgetown University
East West Notes
"Invisible China provides a stunning overview of economic, health and education policies in rural China."
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