The author examines the origins and evolution of China’s ‘Luban Workshops’ and contextualises its multi-purpose applications in Beijing’s foreign policy strategy.
Although seemingly straightforward, China’s creation and utilisation of the ‘Luban Workshops’ must be understood in conjunction with Beijing’s strategy of internationalisation of its entire education system.
‘Luban Workshops’: Origins and Evolution
In China, vocational education and training (VET) is part of the public education system, which especially focuses on imparting technical and operational skills. This VET system aims to provide direct access to the job market after graduation. In 2014, China’s VET system underwent significant reform. The revised framework places cooperation between education institutions and companies at the core of the learning process. Since then, technical institutes have been encouraged to partake in Beijing’s efforts to internationalise its VET. This strategy of “going global,” espoused in Article 19 of the “Decision of the Council of State Affairs on the acceleration of the development of the modern vocational education,” specifies that technical institutes should support Chinese companies’ overseas production and operation by training locals.
The “Luban Workshops” is one of several initiatives that emerged via this strategy. This program was launched by the Municipality of Tianjin, one of China’s main technological and scientific hubs, and was first incorporated into BRI in 2016. It entails establishment of vocational training centres abroad that provide technical training and basic pedagogy for local trainers or workers. The centres aim to cater to Chinese companies’ project related needs, such as in communication infrastructure (e.g. in Djibouti), internet facilities (e.g. in Kenya), chemical industry (e.g. in Thailand) etc.
Luban Workshops and BRI: Emerging Patterns
In the recent times, China has been facing growing backlash in countries (including Zambia, Laos, and Pakistan) where its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) related mega infrastructure projects are underway. Locals are demanding greater transparency and better inclusion in the projects’ workforces. Responding to critics, at the second Belt and Road Forum in 2019, China’s President, Xi Jinping, stated that Beijing needs to prioritise poverty alleviation and job creation in BRI partner countries.
In this context, Beijing is implementing and publicising Luban Workshops to reinforce the BRI’s “win-win” rhetoric. The creation of Luban Workshops has been used to respond to criticisms over influx of Chinese workers causing loss of job opportunities for locals and of creating large Chinese enclaves overseas. This is especially the case in Africa, where President Xi previously announced the creation of 10 new centres.
However, since 2016, only eight centres have emerged for the 118 ongoing BRI projects, and China continues to overlook the pressing demands of local workforce inclusion vis-à-vis near-term job prospects. An Asia Society Policy Institute report explains how little effort has been made to link those training programs to post construction projects and to employ locals thus trained as technically skilled employees. Furthermore, Chinese companies have routinely cited language difficulties, work ethics variations etc as reasons they avoid employing locals. Locals continue to have limited job prospects and are recruited principally for low-skilled positions such as drivers and maintenance staff. Essentially, the Luban Workshops mainly prepare the ground for Chinese companies that hope to rely on local workforce from a more distant approach, as a support of their trade expansion once the construction work is done.
The creation of local training centres seems to be more a part of Chinese soft power related policy rather than evidence of a genuine shift in Chinese companies’ recruitment practices. In fact, three of the eight established workshops are located in countries that are not BRI partners (India, Portugal and the UK). In these countries, the centres are mainly used to showcase Chinese innovation and technical capabilities abroad.
The Luban Workshop centres could also be viewed as precursors of broader extensions of agreements with Chinese technological institutes and companies in BRI partner countries. For instance, the establishment of the Luban Workshop in Lahore, Pakistan, is being followed by projects such as the Pak-China Technological and Vocational Institute in Gwadar.
Additionally, the Luban Workshops seem to follow China’s Confucius Institutes (CI) model, transposed in the VET. Like the CI, Luban Workshops are directly supervised by China’s Ministry of Education even if they do not depend on the CIs, and trainings are conducted under strict government control. Organisation of international competitions within the Workshop’s framework is often relied upon to market China’s good influence abroad. The recurrent use of famous Chinese traditional characters in China’s foreign policy imagery is visible here as well. For example, the term ‘Luban’ is the name of a Chinese mythological figure considered to be the father of art and craft.
While China’s export of its VET system is still in its early stages, certain trends are discernible. Overall, China is becoming a major player in the international engineering and overall scientific arena, and seems to be attempting to achieve the same in the technical skills domain. On an operational level, China’s Luban Workshops seem geared to eventually influence other countries’ vocational and training education (VET) systems by adapting them to Chinese companies’ operational standards. Additionally, Beijing is not making genuine attempts to increase locals’ employment in ongoing BRI projects. Instead, it is betting on a long-lasting influence strategy using these Workshops as a support tool for Chinese companies’ settlements abroad, and in the process, boosting its image as an innovative country.