Transition from factor-driven to innovation-driven urbanization in China: A study of manufacturing industry automation in Dongguan City

Xun Li, Eddie Chi man Hui, Wei Lang, Shali Zheng, Xiaozhen Qin

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

84 Citations (Scopus)


Following the reform and opening up of China, the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region became a center of foreign investment due to its comparative advantages of cheap labor costs and low land use prices. The tide of migrant workers, comprising a large surplus rural labor force that flooded into the PRD region, caused a rapid increase in the urban population. From the 1980s to the 2000s, migrant workers were a key force that drove urbanization in China. The utilization of automation technology in production since the 2010s has increased the number of unemployed laborers and shifted the dynamics of urbanization. This study investigated how automation is applied in production processes and its effects on different industries, namely, those related to textiles, electronic information, and home electrical appliance manufacturing; specifically we sought to examine the complex relationship among automation, the labor forces, and urbanization by illustrating the implementation of automation in production processes and its influence on labor forces and urbanization. This study revealed that companies in different industries implement automation to differing degrees and through varied upgrading paths. All industries can ultimately achieve technological transformation and cross-industry development. For labor forces, automation exerts two simultaneous folded effects, namely, the direct replacement of low- to middle-skilled workers and the creation of new jobs. The penetration of automation into manufacturing industries has changed the dynamics of urbanization and the social spatial structure of cities, leading to a polarization of the labor forces and the emergence of “dual cities”.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101382
JournalChina Economic Review
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2020


  • Automation
  • Innovation-driven urbanization
  • Labor redistribution
  • Migrant worker
  • Pearl River Delta (PRD), China
  • Push and pull effect

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Finance
  • Economics and Econometrics


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