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The big layoff in China

At Zhong Tian Steel in Changzhou (Photo: Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

By the end of the year, some 1.8 million Chinese coal and steel workers will lose their jobs, victims of the government's shift to cleaner industries and a shutdown of small enterprises. To put that in perspective, the two industries employ just 192,000 workers in the U.S.

Why it matters: Ordinarily, China's leadership is most focused on social stability. The party always looks to avoid any outbreak of discontent that could threaten political calm. But now, the priority has shifted to producing higher-value, branded products sold internationally, and owning the future economy of electric and self-driving cars, advanced batteries, robotics and automation equipment.

That's why many of those coal and steel workers are receiving generous long-term payoffs. In one example, per the FT's Emily Feng, workers in Ma'anshan received early retirement worth $600 a month for 35 years.

Bill Bishop, author of the Axios China newsletter (sign up here), tells me that the turn is "all about re-orienting the bureaucracy to focus on greener, more balanced and sustainable development." He says it seemed to gain momentum after the 19th Communist Party Congress in October. The signal was a "very important change to one of its key guiding concepts," he said.

Bill's thought bubble: "The Party has changed the 'principal contradiction' that the Marxists in China believe defines society. Since 1981, near the start of the reform and opening era, the principal contradiction had been 'the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people versus backward social production,' which effectively justified growth at all costs. For the Xi era, that contradiction is now 'between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people's ever-growing needs for a better life.' This puts much greater emphasis on the quality of how ordinary Chinese live."

He concludes: "It will be painful, it may fail, and it does not mean that China won't be exporting pollution and polluting industries while at the same time trying to clean up its own country."

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