Back in the 1950s, Shi Chuanxiang, a humble Beijing toilet cleaner, was lionised by the media as a model worker of the new republic. For his hearty self-sacrifice and communal virtue, he became a living symbol of communist endeavour. Times may have changed, but propaganda motivating a cynical labour force has not. Interviews with eager workers advancing the economic cause are a regular feature of prime-time evening television news. The difference is these 'heroes' are less toiling proletariats than a new breed that got on their bike, got re-trained and got a new job. Switching career is a hot topic among mainland urban dwellers. With Premier Zhu Rongji's streamlining of the government and mass closures of state factories, re-training has become a national buzzword. Statistics tell a story of millions of workers uprooted and told to do something else. Beijing's plan to fire 120,000 migrant workers in favour of the local unemployed follows Shanghai's mass redundancy plans for 250,000 industrial labourers. The social consequences may be enormous, but Mr Zhu is embarking on an experiment in supply-side economics as radical as Friedrich von Hayek or Margaret Thatcher could have imagined. Boiled down, the plan says millions of unproductive workers at loss-making factories must go. But go where? The obvious answer is into the private sector, most particularly the under-developed 'service' sector. The new model worker is a former factory hand who took the redundancy cash, went back to school and set up as a tailor, cobbler, or corner grocer, plugging the gaps on city backstreets. Huge resources are being committed to retraining courses. By taking low-skilled factory employees and providing education, the hope is that they will rapidly re-enter the workforce as productive citizens. All this as the government retreats from the economy. Unlike the case of long-term unemployed in Europe, social-security payments are minimal. While workers are not being evicted from their homes, they are now free agents in a brutal market. Mr Zhu's gamble is that enough of them will learn a new skill and be motivated by need to enter ventures they would otherwise never have dreamt of. Economists call it labour-market mobility. For workers, the programmes are designed to give hope that a brighter future beckons. Across the nation, about 10 million victims of excess capacity are expected to face job-centre queues and skill questionnaires. With government spending being tightened, unemployment and latent entrepreneurial flair is being banked on to create these jobs and jobs for 16 million new workers entering the workforce each year. Can it work? The history of retraining stimulating new jobs for low-skilled workers is mixed. The most optimistic scenario is a Hong Kong-style conversion from grubby factories to a high-value-added services economy. Like Hong Kong, the mainland has a minimal social security net, which should mitigate against long-term unemployment and a welfare culture. On the other hand, Britain's experience is instructive. Mrs Thatcher's supply-side revolution has many similarities with Mr Zhu's bold plan. A tight monetary policy, high exchange rate and removal of state subsidies decimated Britain's antediluvian manufacturing base in the early 1980s. Against this backdrop, welfare payments were tightened and retraining schemes designed to have workers pull themselves up by the bootstraps were introduced. While a services economy blossomed in the later part of that decade, it passed by many of the laid-off factory workers who sat through training classes smoking cigarettes and reading the sports pages. Today, many of them remain unemployed. Unlike Mrs Thatcher, Mr Zhu does not have the option of benign economic decline. Retraining will not create jobs but might give workers incentive to get on their bikes and drive a supply-side revolution. Shi Chuanxiang would no doubt have applauded such sentiment.