China Tests Our Dream of an Automated Future
As rich countries enter demographic decline, China is uniquely determined to maintain growth through robotics and automation. After initial success, the scale of the challenge is becoming evident.
Prior to the new millennium, China’s footprint in robotics was marginal.1 In 2013, it became the single largest market for industrial robots.2 From 2000 to 2020, China’s share of worldwide new industrial robot installations grew from 0.4% to 44%, an increase of more than two orders of magnitude.3 By 2020, with 943,000 robots, it more than doubled Japan’s operational stock of 347,000.4 This rapid growth was driven by increasing wages, cheap access to capital, and expansions of China’s automotive and electronic manufacturing industries, where automation is well-tested. But it also relied on enormous subsidies at the local and national levels. Robots were long associated with industrial progress, and in 2013, the Ministry of Industry and Information technology (MIIT) explicitly targeted robot adoption with its “guidance” on the robotics industry. In 2016, the MIIT, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and the Minister of Finance announced China’s 2016 robotics industry development plan for the years 2016 to 2020. An adjunct to the wider five-year plan, it set a goal of expanding robot use tenfold by 2025 and increasing robot density to 150 per 10,000 industrial workers.5 These initiatives are directed by a consortium of trade associations, expert organizations, ministries, and the office of the Vice Premier, who collaborate through the “Leading Small Group for Constructing a Manufacturing Superpower,” an informal group of high-level players in industry and the government bureaucracy.6