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The NATO Parliamentary Assembly has just released a report on “China's Development Challenge.” While the report discusses such topics as foreign investment and China’s energy needs, much of the analysis focuses on the challenge of rural development. This focus on the rapidly growing divide between China’s rural and urban economies and the fear of spreading rural unrest is correct: the problem has been growing for more than a decade.
There is an old French maxim that says, if you can't fire a worker, don't hire him. Asia seems to be learning French. The widespread "push-back" against earlier abuses of labor rights by non-democratic regimes is producing a host of well-intentioned labor market interventions throughout Asia that risk undermining the region’s greatest asset: it’s abundant and affordable labor. In Indonesia, for example, minimum wages have risen three-fold since 1998 and a number of local governments are actively competing to see who can have the highest minimum wage.
Think about the plight of many of the poorest countries in the world: Governments may know that long-term national prosperity depends on getting children into school, teaching them well, and keeping them there until they’ve mastered reading, writing and arithmetic. But the social returns aren’t likely to come for more than a decade, when the six-year-olds of today enter the labor market.