Nicole Wu

Nicole Wu

Welcome! I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Previously, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University. I received my PhD in Political Science from the University of Michigan in 2020.

My research and teaching interests include international and comparative political economy, public opinion, the politics of technology, and labor politics. Specifically, my work seeks to understand the political consequences of two of the most important changes in the contemporary world economy — technological change and the rise of China.

My book project, based on my dissertation, explores mass attitudes toward job automation and globalization in the United States and China. One of its chapters was the winner of the 2018 Peace Science Society (International) Award. I have other published and ongoing research related to economic integration with China.

I have a MA in Political Science from Michigan and a BSSc (First Class Honors) in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I was a visiting student at the University of Pennsylvania, University of California–Berkeley, and Purdue University (environmental science and agricultural economics).

My CV can be found here.



Cover photo: Taken during a factory visit in southern China.

Dissertation/
Book Project

CNC machine in use since the 80s (2018).
Artisan furniture factory, Guangdong (2018).
‍‍
Pepper in Tokyo, Japan.
Semi-humanoid, Tokyo (2017).

The Politics of Job Automation

Globalization and automation are transforming the international labor market. Although technological change has led to job polarization, rising inequality, and labor displacement, many overwhelmingly blame globalization — but not automation — for economic dislocations. Why do people point the finger at immigrants and workers abroad, but not robots? Which types of workers are more worried about automation, and why?

The first part of this project argues that the threat of automation has led to more hostile attitudes toward globalization. Drawing on a nationally representative survey and a survey experiment in the United States, I find that respondents experiencing higher anxiety due to automation are more likely to displace blame for harmful changes in the labor market toward outgroups and away from technology. Most people believe that technology enhances our lives, makes the world better off, and should develop unabated. Hesitant to halt innovation, individuals opt to buffer domestic workers from technological threats with substitute policies — immigration and trade restrictions — that they believe could improve national wages and employment prospects. With robots increasingly displacing labor, people want to stop outgroups — immigrants and foreign workers — from further dividing the pie. Thus, automation anxiety may have evoked individuals' protectionist instincts, intensified attempts to resist globalization, and contributed to the revival of radical politics.

But not all workers are equally anxious about automation. The second part of the project shows that institutions — existing labor arrangements — can lead to different levels of technological receptiveness for workers who face similar threats of automation. In China, the household registration system creates a stratified labor market that favors local workers and discriminates against non-local workers. Drawing on interviews, original surveys, and factory visits conducted in 19 cities in China, I find that local workers, who are better protected by local labor regulations, are more worried about job automation than non-local workers. The undesirability of non-local workers' circumstances make their jobs less painful to lose and easier to substitute, leading to lower technological anxiety. Ironically, the greater legal protection afforded to local workers makes them more expensive to hire, less competitive than non-local workers with the same skills, and more anxious about automation. Labor market institutions influence workers' expectations and the availability of exit options comparable to their status quo. These results imply that opposition toward technology is more likely to originate from workers in relatively privileged positions (e.g. union members) if they do not expect to be able to transition to comparable jobs after a layoff.

Overall, this work contributes to a deeper understanding of the politics of technological change and opposition to globalization. Research on the political effects of job automation will likely become more pertinent as policymakers, business leaders, and workers confront the challenges, opportunities, and dilemmas brought by the new wave of technological advancement. I have secured partial funding to replicate the study in Japan and Germany for this comparative book project.

One of the chapters, "Misattributed Blame? Attitudes Toward Globalization in the Age of Automation", was the winner of the Peace Science Society (International) Award at the 2018 Pacific International Politics Conference.

Research

Published research

"'Restrict Foreigners, Not Robots': Partisan Responses to Automation Threat." Economics & Politics. 2022.
Open access

"Misattributed Blame? Attitudes Toward Globalization in the Age of Automation.'' (Peace Science Society (International) Award). Political Science Research and Methods. 2022.
Open access | Replication materials

“Automation, Not Immigration: The Case Study of Japan.” In Culture, Sociality, and Morality New Applications of Mainline Political Economy (edited by Paul Dragos Aligica, Ginny Seung Choi, and Virgil Henry Storr). Rowman & Littlefeld. 2021. (Editor-reviewed)

"Can Beijing Buy Taiwan? An Empirical Assessment of Beijing’s Agricultural Concessions to Taiwan” (with Stan Hok-Wui Wong). Journal of Contemporary of China. 2016.
Publisher version

Current research

"Labor responses to automation" (Book project)

"Little to Lose: Exit Options and Technological Receptiveness in China." Under Review

"Disaggregating the 'China Shock:' Understanding China’s Impact on Attitudes Toward Globalization" (with Mary Gallagher, Lawerence Root, and Yujeong Yang).

Fieldwork 

Workplace Automation in China

In collaboration with a team of Chinese researchers, we visited factories and conducted interviews of firm managers and workers from 76 companies in 19 cities.

The interviews covered a few topics: factors contributing to automation; employment and workplace changes after automation; worker training, recruitment, and retention; and government incentives.

While in the field, we also completed a firm-level survey (n=608) and a manufacturing worker survey (n=2,443).

ManufacturingManufacturing in ChinaManufacturing in China
The robotic arm (front) and the worker (back) are performing the same task.
The new face of Chinese manufacturing: firms automate because it is difficult to recruit & retain workers.
Some work procedures remain labor-intensive.


Teaching 

I taught classes in comparative politics, international relations, and research methods. I received teaching awards in all three subfields. A summary of teaching evaluations can be found here.

Teaching Awards

  • John W. Kingdon Award for Outstanding Teaching, University of Michigan, 2019
  • John W. Kingdon Award for Outstanding Teaching, University of Michigan, 2017
  • Exemplary Teaching Assistant Award, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2013

Public Engagement

"Social Classes in the Digital Age Workshop. Social Classes in the Digital Age." Centre for Advanced Studies, European Commission.
Event recording | Publications Office of the European Union summary report

Contact

Snail mail:
Department of Political Science
Sidney Smith Hall, Room 3018
100 St. George Street
Toronto, ON M5S 3G3
Canada

Pictured: Ollie, designated mail receiver

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