Second UBI Roundtable: Piloting UBI in China

Dec 18, 2017

December 2, Beijing - The second roundtable event on Universal Basic Income (UBI) was recently held at the United Nations Development Programme in China (UNDP China), following the first roundtable discussion on October 19. Around 11 representatives from academia, United Nations agencies and government joined together to share ideas on the feasibility of piloting UBI in China.

The roundtable discussion reached a consensus that piloting of UBI at the local level with specific populations was feasible. UBI is an alternative in social welfare with many precedents around the world. The roundtable event called for further discussion and research on related issues, considering China’s own unique conditions and the development of new technologies such AI, which would profoundly reshape the labor market. UNDP China would consistently promote and assist follow-up studies and pilot projects.

Mr. Patrick Haverman, UNDP China Deputy Country Director and the chair of the roundtable event, gave the opening remarks. “What is the opinion of UBI here in China?”, asked Mr. Haverman. He called for pioneering pilot projects on UBI in China, where related research was still minimal and urgently needed. He also emphasized electronic payment systems, which should not be overlooked in the remaking of cash distribution.

The meeting was also chaired by Zheng Yuan, the national economist of UNDP China. Professor Zheng Gongcheng, from Renmin University and member of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, laid the grounds for the discussion with his opening remarks. Though he personally agreed with the concept of UBI, he believed that the instant and nation-wide implementation of UBI in China was impractical, for which he provided three reasons including national income, national consensus, and national conditions. However, he didn’t deny the possibility of piloting at the local level like Guangdong Province. In the end, he emphasized the significance of employment in the social welfare system. “Not only ‘sharing together’, but also ‘building together’”, concluded Professor Zheng.

A senior government staff spoke, in his personal capacity, about how at this moment, and in the near future, it would be impossible to come to a nation-wide implementation of UBI, from a point of view of calculating the needed budget. He also spoke of the details of existing policies which share similarities with UBI, such as the Urban and Rural Residents Pension System and the Urban and Rural Residents Medical Insurance System, which he suggested conducting deeper studies for the reference of UBI.

Professor Yu Jiantuo, the Secretary-General’s Assistant of China Development Research Foundation listed three disadvantages of UBI:  it would take a huge toll on public resources and national taxes, would be hard to implement UBI in a society with high mobility and UBI would result in the decrease of social participation. Professor Cui Zhiyuan from Tsinghua University proposed to implement UBI through the social dividends of state-owned assets, for which he justified by providing a theoretical mathematical model and examples from Alaska. Professor Lishi from Beijing Normal University believed by 2035, when Chinese per capita GDP would reach $30,000, the conditions for UBI could be met.

Many attendants discussed the impact of newly emerged technology on the labour market, such as AI, which would have a profound influence on the social security area. Professor Yu shared his experience in the Suzhou Industry Plant to demonstrate how massive job replacements in labour market may occur. Ms. Li Qingyi from ILO spoke of the transition of labour market due to technology, which was correlated with UBI.

The roundtable event reached an agreement that the preliminary research on UBI and piloting within a certain limit were inevitable. Professor Li Shi suggested more research on foreign cases to localize external experiences and he also suggested to conduct long-term research on certain groups of people, children for example. Ms. Jillian Popkins from UNICEF suggested urgent and quick action with clear and definite purpose, for she believed 2020 would be a window of opportunity as China will attain the middle-income country status by that time. She mentioned that the UNICEF and other international institutions were willing to provide global evidence on issues regarding social protection such as affordability, coverage or welfare traps and other necessary assistance to the piloting. Dr. Bill Bikales, a UNDP senior development economist suggested to carefully outline the criteria for pilot locations and government partnership. He also highlighted the possibility of UBI with Chinese characteristics.

In the ensuing free discussions before the close of the roundtable, details about UBI piloting regarding funding, locations, people and organizers were reviewed in a deeper and more practical stage. The second UBI roundtable event was a great step forward in the piloting of UBI in China. UNDP China will consistently work with governments, academia and civil societies for future promotion and provide necessary assistance.    

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