Can't find a job? Try China

A pharma firm slashes jobs in the West but boosts its Chinese workforce. Also, it helps if you are a top scientist

By Andrew Leonard

Published October 9, 2009 7:05AM (EDT)

Two data points on China and jobs:

Theoretical computer science -- the abstract, intensely mathematical subfield that is Mr. Yao's specialty -- is poorly financed in the United States. It wasn't originally a target area for China, either. But China has an approach different from that found in the United States: a desire to build outstanding institutions by attracting the leaders in a field -- any field...

That hunger translates into money for leading Western-trained scientists willing to relocate. "China is a very exciting place for science and engineering for people who have vision," he says.

The link between these two stories is how they cross athwart the classic framing that sees China as primarily employing its cheap labor and cheap currency to out-compete the West. Eli Lilly isn't looking to cut costs by moving to China, it is hoping to cash in on China's growing demand for state-of-the-art healthcare products. Meanwhile, it is slashing its U.S. workforce primarily because three of its biggest selling drugs, including the anti-psychotic Zyprexa, are about to lose their patent protection.

Likewise -- the flow of top theoretical computer scientists to Tsinghua has nothing to do with the inequities of globalization and everything to do with China's determination to pour resources into science and technology.

Which leads to one final observation. A question much asked lately -- and plaintively -- in the United States is: Where will we find the next driver of economic growth? Consumers are retrenching, the housing market will be stagnant for years, the dot-com bubble is unlikely to reflate -- it's just hard to see where a new flow of energy, excitement and potential profits will come from. But maybe we're looking in the wrong place. Maybe the next engine of growth will be the China boom.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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