Wei Zhu: Zipper Projects in China

When talking about large Keynesian multipliers, professors often talk about how even “having workers dig a ditch and filling it in” could under certain circumstances, and with certain parameter values, be a good idea. Make work projects like that can also be a way to credibly identify people who desperately need money (who are willing to do hard, meaningless work) from people who only claim to desperately need money. So make work projects have some importance in economic theory. I learned from Wei Zhu’s guest post below that make work projects have a very descriptive name in China: zipper projects. (Although I have heard of make work projects in India, I am not sure they go this far in explicitly undoing things.) If you like this post, you should definitely read Wei’s other guest post, which appeared last Saturday: “The Sharing Economy.”

When we talk about unemployment in the U.S., we’re talking about economic conditions. When it comes to unemployment in China, it’s a social problem. When 1.35 billion people live in an economy second to the U.S.’s, how many jobs do you think that are available to the country? Yet China’s unemployment rate is as low as 4.1%. Despite the fact that labor-intensive manufacturing has provided abundant positions to hold the figure, during the process of urbanization, however, there are still a considerable number of farmers turning into jobless workers. In order to sponge out these extra workforces, local governments invented a special kind of projects – “Zipper” projects.

So what really is zipper project? Like a zipper, which is frequently zipped and unzipped, zipper project is a kind of frequently repeated construction or maintenance project. Most of the zipper projects are labor intensive, cheap and time-consuming. If you’ve been to China, you should’ve seen workers planting rode-side trees or fixing roads, those are most frequently used zipper projects. The reason I’m so sure that you have seen them is because they are there all the time – not long after the projects are finished, the same or another group of workers will be sent back to tear everything down and start over. It’s kind of like “the Myth of Sisyphus” in real life, only that it’s not a punishment but a way to provide temporary job opportunities.

“Zipper” project, is yet another unique social phenomenon in China. It exists to solve a social problem, but it’s not a real solution, because zipper projects can’t eliminate the migrant worker problem from the root. If anything, it’s a compromise.

It’s a compromise between keeping the rapid growth of China’s economy and maintaining the stableness of China’s society. You have to admit the difficulty of running a country is not linear to its population. Feeding the biggest population in the world while keeping up with the world’s economy growth is not an easy task. Many think the idea of zipper projects sounds ridiculous, as it makes no sense for a city to waste resources on prying and patching the same part of the road repeatedly. The reality is, however, if it weren’t for the zipper projects, there would be hardly enough temporary jobs to buffer the huge number of incoming migrant workers. When these people coming into the city without jobs, trouble comes, too. Between putting the the society at risk and wasting resource, it’s wiser to choose the latter.

This reminds me of the famous “Trolley Problem”: you see a trolley running towards five people out of control and there’s lever that can divert the trolley to a sidetrack where there lies one person, what would you do? I guess for the Chinese decision makers who shoulder the responsibility of 1.35 billion people, utility beats morality.