Is China’s Export Success Built on Slavery?

by Don Boudreaux on September 19, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies

The Washington Post gives some details here on a new report by the International Labor Office (ILO) on modern slavery.  I’ve not yet read the report.  Nevertheless, I’ll make a quick point about the numbers in that report as conveyed by the Post.

The headline number is that, according to the ILO, there are today 40 million people who are enslaved.  This number seems big – and it is indeed 40 million people too big.  But it’s worth noting that 40 million is only one-half of one percent of the world’s current population of 7.5 billion.  Given that slavery was a common institution until well into the 19th century, one-half of one-percent is astonishingly better than the historical norm.  (It boggles my mind whenever I reflect on the fact that my own life – I was born in 1958 – overlapped with the lives of individual fellow Americans who were themselves slaves early in their lives.)

More deeply, I’m skeptical of even the relatively small figure of 40 million.  Again, I’ve not read the ILO report, but because there exists in nature no hard and fast, objective definition of slavery, the temptation is great for intellectuals to classify as ‘slaves’ those who live in conditions that, from the perspective of denizens of rich countries, are truly ghastly but which contain no legal or social restraints that many other reasonable people would describe as enslaving.  This temptation is especially sharp for those intellectuals who work for an agency that has as part of its mission the use of first-world resources to help people in third-world countries.

That said, let’s take the 40 million figure as fact.  Also according to the ILO, 38 percent (15.2 million) of those 40 million are slaves by virtue (or, really, vice) of their being victims of forced marriages.  That leaves 24.8 million people whose slavery involves something other than being forced to marry against their will – for example, people whose slavery involves being forced to work for others at, literally, slave wages.  Indeed, let’s assume here that all of the remaining 62 percent (24.8 million) of slaves are people who are forced to work at literal slave wages in factories producing output for sale on global markets.  (This assumption almost certainly overestimates the number of such factory slaves, but let’s go with this number for purposes of this post.)

Also according to the ILO report, 25 million of the world’s 40 million slaves are in Asia and the Pacific.  The ILO report apparently doesn’t break down the distribution of slaves into individual countries.  So let’s further assume – also surely contrary to fact – that all of these 25 million slaves in Asia and the Pacific are enslaved in China.  If we further assume (which seems not unreasonable) that the percentage of Chinese people who are slaves by virtue of their being in forced marriages is the same (38%) as the worldwide percentage of people who are classified as slaves because they are in forced marriages, that leaves 15.5 million Chinese people in slavery working (on our assumptions) in factories producing goods for sale on global markets.

China’s workforce today is nearly 803 million – a number that, I’ll assume to make my argument here weaker than otherwise, does not include the 15.5 million slaves.  Thus, even according to figures given by the ILO,  percentage of Chinese workers who are slaves is ‘only’ 1.9.  Again, if this number is correct, that’s 1.9 percent of workers too many.  But this small percentage makes unbelievable the often-repeated assertion that China’s modern export success is built on slavery.  Indeed, even if we make the overly ‘generous’ assumption that all 25 million slaves in Asia and the Pacific are Chinese workers, the percentage of the Chinese workforce who are slaves remains tiny; it’s 3.1 percent.

Bottom line: Even on assumptions most generous to those who contend that modern China’s economic success generally, and its export success specifically, is the product of slavery in China, the numbers simply do not support the contention.  The maximum likely percentage of the current Chinese workforce that is enslaved is far too small to make the contention work as a plausible explanation of economic reality.  Looked at a bit differently, the increasing wealth produced for many of the 1.4 billion Chinese, and for the many of the 6.1 billion of us in the rest of world who trade with the Chinese, is simply too vast to be extracted by slave-masters from the forced sweat and toil of, at most, 25 million workers.


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