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Karen Fisher, Haiqing Yu

The digital economy offers new employment opportunities for China’s disabled people. Expanding the digital economy to include broader parts of the population combines the economic goal of China’s transition to a high-tech nation with the political imperatives of growth and social stability. This is the fourth part of a series based on a MERICS publication on social services in China.

China's digital economy creates new employment opportunities for disabled people – with the government’s active support. Image by ImagineChina

In China, as in other countries, disabled people struggle to find employment. This is changing as the digital economy creates new employment and entrepreneurial opportunities – with the government’s active support.

China has 85 million disabled people according to official statistics, 6.21 percent of the total population. The actual number is probably much higher, since the WHO estimate is closer to 15 percent in most countries. Nearly 54 percent (9.42 million) of working-age disabled people (16-60 years old) are in paid employment.

The digital economy not only removes physical and geographical access barriers, it also levels the playing field for people without paid work experience. China’s disability and internet policies require civic organizations and private companies to employ disabled people and encourage them to build accessible platforms to enable entrepreneurialism.

Disabled people set up personal online stores

Supported by these policies, disabled people in China are earning income, sometimes for the first time, in three ways:

First, new jobs have emerged in the ICT (information and communication technologies) sector in urban and rural areas. These jobs range from developing and selling ICT software and hardware to working in call centres. Many of these jobs are not location-specific and some only require on-the-job training. Both these job characteristics mean that some disabled people who are excluded from the labor market by physical access, location or education now have regular work. Some ICT companies are also targeting jobs to disabled staff because of lower costs, especially if they live outside the wealthier locations. It also means the company can meet the employer disability quota.

The second type of jobs is in personal online stores. The extent of this type of business is a China-specific phenomenon. Major platforms in China include Taobao and Weidian (retail shops based on WeChat). Individuals can easily and cheaply set up online stores from their own smartphone or computer. Disabled people are overrepresented as Taobao operators according to Alibaba, one of the largest IT companies.

The disabled Taobao operators often sell local produce or disability-related products. A case that has attracted publicity is a physically disabled young woman in rural China who uses WeChat to sell the fruit produced by her family and village. Another is a successful businessman who manufactures and sells clothes online (via Taobao and WeChat), employing hundreds of staff, including other disabled people.

China’s policies connect citizens, markets and government actors

The third use of digital platforms by disabled people is social enterprises, which can have flow-on effects for social inclusion in other areas, as well as economic benefits such as skill learning and upgrading. Interesting examples include national and local job networks and information sites that link disabled people with each other or to employers and other social opportunities. Some successful social enterprises leverage their market power for disability advocacy.

The changing pattern of disabled people’s employment in China’s digital economy can also be of international interest. As a global leader in the development of digital online platforms and cashless financial transactions, China is in a good starting position to actively engage with the new digital corporate market at the same time as it develops its social welfare systems.

Social inclusion and equality for all (including disabled people) remains an elusive goal in all countries. The response of the Chinese government to unemployment of disabled people is an interesting model for sharing responsibilities between the private and public sectors. The explicit policy connection between citizen agency, market opportunities and government responsibility is a unique Chinese approach.

This article is based on a chapter in the MERICS Paper on China: "Serve the people. Innovation and IT in China’s social development agenda." 

Karen R. Fisher is a Professor at the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Her research interests are the organization of social services in Australia and China, particularly disability and mental health services, policy process and inclusive research.

Haiqing Yu is Associate Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Principal Research Fellow in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, Australia. She researches the sociopolitical and economic impact of China’s digital media, communication, and culture on China, Australia and the Asia Pacific.

The views expressed in this article represent the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.