What Use is Chinese Studies in a Pandemic? The Industrial Economics Perspective

Suyu Liu, independent scholar

What can Chinese studies offer for the understanding of the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic? What can research and expertise on China contribute to the post-pandemic recovery and predict of the long-term impact of Covid-19 in China and other countries? So far, there is very limited analysis of these issues from the perspective of industrial economics. In consideration of the rapid industrial development in China, and the expanding influence of Chinese industrial economy on the world economy, this article outlines how research on Chinese industrial economy, especially its manufacturing sector, can contribute to knowledge of Covid-19 and the post-pandemic recovery in both China and other countries. In this article, industrial economy is defined as all economic activities in sections B (mining and quarrying), C (manufacturing), D (electricity, gas, steam, and air conditioning supply), E (water supply, sewerage, waste management, and remediation activities), and F (construction) of the International Standard of Industrial Classification Revision 4 (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2008).

China’s rapidly growing industrial economy and its strong influence have been widely demonstrated (e.g. Guo and Hu, 2019). The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO, 2020: 8) reports that China’s manufacturing output, a core indicator of China’s industrial economy, increased by 5.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 compared with the same period in 2018, with an increase of 5.3 percent from the preceding quarter. However, the wide spread of Covid-19 has a significant impact on China’s industrial economy. For example, national official statistics show that the “absolute value” of China’s manufacturing sector was 5,385.2 billion Chinese yuan, a decrease of 10.2 percent on a year-on-year basis (China National Bureau of Statistics, 2020a). Such negative impact is particularly significant in lower-end industries such as auto-repair (Wu et al., 2020). With this essential background knowledge, this article outlines that Chinese studies can generate two main contributions to the understanding of Covid-19 and to predicting the long-term impact of the pandemic: the industrial development experience during China’s fight against Covid-19, and the connection between China’s industrial economy and the world’s post-pandemic recovery.

The Industrial Development Experience During China’s Fight against Covid-19

During China’s fight against the pandemic, especially from early January to late March 2020, a number of industrial development experiences can be summarised by researchers in Chinese studies, which can enrich the knowledge of relevant disciplines and provide practical implications to other countries. This is especially because of China’s relatively earlier exposure to the spread of Covid-19.

The first experience is that the promotion of producing medical and hygiene products during China’s fight against Covid-19 has positive impact on pandemic control and post-pandemic recovery. As shown by China’s experience, with the support of unmanned systems, the daily production of face masks in China reached 54.77 million (Sun et al., 2020: 45). This not only directly supports the clinical frontline, but also provides essential assistance to maintain the relevant industrial supply chain and maximise employment, which are essential to post-pandemic recovery. This has been demonstrated by the over 10 percent increase in urban employment in March 2020 compared with the previous month (Fu, 2020). This experience can generate practical implications for other countries which are suffering from shrinking industrial economies and high unemployment, especially those with large labour-intensive sectors.

Secondly, China’s experience of taking the fight against Covid-19 as an opportunity to promote industrial upgrades can also be shared to other countries. As a response strategy to the rapid spread of Covid-19, China promotes the industrial upgrade such as digitisation, remote working, and unmanned production, including artificial intelligence (Sun et al., 2020). The value-added of China’s high-tech manufacturing increased by 8.9 percent in March 2020 compared with the previous month, despite the strong hit by Covid-19 (China National Bureau of Statistics, 2020b). This not only assists in minimising the spread of Covid-19, but also contributes to China’s industrial upgrade towards Industry 4.0, which is based on large-scale computerisation, smart production, and artificial intelligence. Other countries especially those with suitable industrial foundations can benefit from this experience from China, which could be shared by researchers in Chinese studies.

The Connection between China’s Industrial Economy and the World’s Post-Pandemic Recovery

The strong presence of China’s industrial economy in the world has been widely observed (UNIDO, 2019), especially in the global trade and the international supply chain. Thus, the strong hit on China’s industrial economy by Covid-19 will also have significant impact on the world economy and the global post-pandemic recovery. However, so far there is very limited research on how and to what extent the shock of China’s industrial economy during the pandemic has affected the economic development in other countries and the world’s post-pandemic recovery. Therefore, Chinese studies can bridge this gap by providing more solid evidence through rigorous research, which would generate more knowledge of the pandemic and the response to the crisis than merely relying on news from media.

Researchers’ interdisciplinary expertise on China, especially on its industrial economy, can contribute to the prediction about the long-term impact of this pandemic. For example, will East Asia (including China) become the engine of the post-pandemic world economic recovery, due to its relatively earlier and quicker resumption of industrial production? How will the pandemic affect China and Japan’s continuous competition for the regional leadership in industrial economy? What are the possible trends of the redistribution of manufacturing in China and Southeast Asia during and after the pandemic? Chinese studies can provide more evidence and insights to further explore these questions related to the long-term impact of this pandemic.

To sum up, in face of the pandemic, Chinese studies can enhance the understanding of Covid-19 and provide different perspectives and information from traditional “hard sciences.” In particular, from the perspective of industrial economics, Chinese studies can contribute a unique expertise to discover the industrial development experience in China during the fight against Covid-19, and explore the relationship between China’s industrial economy and the global post-pandemic recovery.

Acknowledgement: The author appreciates the insightful discussion with former students, peers, and/or colleagues at the University of Oxford, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect any official stance of the University of Oxford, the United Nations and its organisations and agencies including WHO and UNIDO.


China National Bureau of Statistics (2020a), Preliminary Accounting Results of GDP for the First Quarter of 2020. Accessed at: http://www.stats.gov.cn/english/PressRelease/202004/t20200420_1739811.html

China National Bureau of Statistics (2020b), News Press of First Quarter 2020 Economic Development in China. Accessed at: https://finance.sina.com.cn/wm/2020-04-17/doc-iircuyvh8320076.shtml

Fu, L. (2020), “Dui yijidu bufen zhibiao bianhua de jidian kanfa” 对一季度部分指标变化的几点看法 (A few thoughts on the changes of indicators in the first quarter). Accessed at: http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/sjjd/ 202004/t20200420_1739722.html.

Guo, C., and Y. Hu (2019), “China’s sustainable industrialization and its significance,” Chinese Journal of Urban and Environmental Studies, 7 (1): 1940003.

Sun, Y., W. Jin, and T. Tang (2020), “Wuren xitong zai xinguan feiyan yiqing fangkong zhong de yingyong shijian” 无人系统在新冠肺炎疫情防控中的应用实践 (The application of unmanned system in the practice of controlling Covid-19), Keji daobao 科技导报, 38 (4): 39–49.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2008), International Standard of Industrial Classification of All Economic Activities Rev.4, New York: United Nations.

United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (2020), World Manufacturing Production: Statistics for Quarter IV 2019, Vienna: UNIDO.

United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (2019), Competitive Industrial Performance Report 2018, Vienna: UNIDO.

Wu, D., Y. Xu, and G. Wang (2020), “Xinguan feiyan yiqing xia qiche weixiuye zhuanxing fazhan de sikao” 新冠肺炎疫情下汽车维修业转型发展的思考 (Thoughts of the transformation of auto-repair industry under Covid-19), Qiche weihu yu xiuli 汽车维护与修理 (Auto Maintenance and Reparation), 27 (3A): 29–32.