Dangerous Liaisons: Progressives, the Right, and the Anti-China Trade Campaign
Dangerous Liaisons: Progressives, the Right, and the Anti-China Trade Campaign
Like the United States, China is a country that is full of contradictions. It is certainly not a country that can be summed up as "a rogue nation that decorates itself with human rights abuses as if they were medals of honor". (1) This characterization by AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney joins environmentalist Lester Brown's Cassandra-like warnings about the Chinese people in hitting a new low in the rhetoric of the Yellow Peril tradition in American populist politics. Brown accuses the Chinese of being the biggest threat to the world's food supply because they are climbing up the food chain by becoming meat-eaters. (2)
These claims are disconcerting. At other times, we may choose not to engage their proponents. But not today, when they are being bandied about with studied irresponsibility to reshape the future of relations between the world's most populous nation and the world's most powerful one.
A coalition of forces seeks to deprive China of permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) as a means of obstructing that country's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). We do not approve of the free-trade paradigm that underpins NTR status. We do not support the WTO; we believe, in fact, that it would be a mistake for China to join it. But the real issue in the China debate is not the desirability or undesirability of free trade and the WTO. The real issue is whether the United States has the right to serve as the gatekeeper to international organizations such as the WTO. More broadly, it is whether the United States government can arrogate to itself the right to determine who is and who is not a legitimate member of the international community. The issue is unilateralism-the destabilizing thrust that is Washington's oldest approach to the rest of the world.
The unilateralist anti-China trade campaign enmeshes many progressive groups in the US in an unholy alliance with the right wing that, among other things, advances the Pentagon's grand strategy to contain China. It splits a progressive movement that was in the process of coming together in its most solid alliance in years. It is, to borrow Omar Bradley's characterization of the Korean War, "the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time".
The Real China
To justify US unilateralism vis-à-vis China, opponents of NTR for China have constructed an image of China that could easily have come out of the pen of Joseph McCarthy.
But what really is China? Since the anti-China lobby has done such a good job telling us about China's bad side, it might be appropriate to begin by showing the other side.
Many in the developing world admire China for being one of the world's most dynamic economies, growing between 7-10 per cent a year over the past decade. Its ability to push a majority of the population living in abject poverty during the Civil War period in the late forties into decent living conditions in five decades is no mean achievement. That economic dynamism cannot be separated from an event that most countries in the global South missed out on: a social revolution in the late forties and early fifties that eliminated the worst inequalities in the distribution of land and income and prepared the country for economic takeoff when market reforms were introduced into the agricultural sector in the late 1970's.
China likewise underlines a reality that many in the North, who are used to living under powerful states that push the rest of the world around, fail to appreciate: this is the critical contribution of a liberation movement that decisively wrests control of the national economy from foreign interests. China is a strong state, born in revolution and steeled in several decades of wars hot and cold. Its history of state formation accounts for the difference between China and other countries of the South, like Thailand, Brazil, Nigeria, and South Korea. In this it is similar to that other country forged in revolution, Vietnam.
Foreign investors can force many other governments to dilute their investment rules to accommodate them. That is something they find difficult to do in China and Vietnam, which are prepared to impose a thousand and one restrictions to make sure that foreign capital indeed contributes to development, from creating jobs to actually transferring technology.
The Pentagon can get its way in the Philippines, Korea, and even Japan. These are, in many ways, vassal states. In contrast, it is very careful when it comes to dealing with China and Vietnam, both of whom taught the US that bullying doesn't pay during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, respectively.
Respect is what China and Vietnam gets from transnationals and Northern governments. Respect is what most of our governments in the global South don't get. When it comes to pursuing national interests, what separates China and Vietnam from most of our countries are successful revolutionary nationalist movements that got institutionalized into no-nonsense states.
What is the "Case" against China?
Of course, China has problems when it comes to issues such as its development model, the environment, workers rights, human rights and democracy. But here the record is much more complex than the picture painted by many US NGO's.
- The model of development of outward -oriented growth built on exports to developed country markets of labor-intensive products is no scheme to destroy organized labor thought up by an evil regime. This is the model that has been prescribed for over two decades by the World Bank and other Western-dominated development institutions for the developing countries. When China joined the World Bank in the early eighties, this was the path to development recommended by the officials and experts of that institution.
Through the strategic manipulation of aid, loans, and the granting of the stamp of approval for entry into world capital markets, the Bank pushed export-oriented, labor-intensive manufacturing and discouraged countries from following domestic-market-oriented growth based on rising wages and incomes. In this connection, it must be pointed out that World Bank policies vis-...-vis China and the Third World were simply extensions of policies in the US, Britain, and other countries in the North, where the Keynesian or Social Democratic path based on rising wages and incomes was foreclosed by the anti-labor, pro-capitalist neoliberal policies of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their ideological allies.
- True, development in China has been accompanied by much environmental destruction and must be criticized. But what many American environmentalists forget is that the model of double-digit GDP growth based on resource-intensive, waste-intensive, toxic-intensive production and unrestrained levels of consumption is one that China and other developing countries have been enouraged to copy from the North, where it continues to be the dominant paradigm. Again, the World Bank and the whole Western neoclassical economics establishment, which has equated development with unchecked levels of consumption, must bear a central part of the blame.
Northern environmentalists love to portray China as representing the biggest future threat to the global environment. They assume that China will simply emulate the unrestrained consumer-is-king model of the US and the North. What they forget to mention is that per capita consumption in China is currently just one tenth of that of developed countries. (3) What they decline to point out is that the US, with five per cent of the world's population, is currently the biggest single source of global climate change, accounting as it does for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. As the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) points out, the carbon emission level of one US citizen in 1996 was equal to that of 19 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 17 Maldivians, 49 Sri Lankans, 107 Bangladeshis, 134 Bhutanese, or 269 Nepalis. (4)
When it comes to food consumption, Lester Brown's picture of Chinese meat eaters and milk consumers destabilizing food supply is simply ethnocentric, racist, and wrong. According to FAO data, China's consumption of meat in 1992-94 was 33 kg per capita and this is expected to rise to 60 kg per capita in 2020. In contrast, the comparable figures for developed countries was 76 kg per capita in 1992-94, rising to 83 kg in 2020. When it comes to milk, China's consumption was 7 kg per capita in 1992-94, rising marginally to 12 kg in 2020. Per capita consumption in developed countries, in contrast was 195 kg and declining only marginally to 189 kg in 2020. (5)
The message of these two sets of figures is unambiguous: the unchecked consumption levels in the United States and other Northern countries continue to be the main destabilizer of the global environment.
- True, China is no workers' paradise. Yet it is simplistic to say that workers have no rights, or that the government has, in the manner of a pimp, delivered its workers to transnationals to exploit. There are unions; indeed, China has the biggest trade union confederation in the world, with 100 million members. Granted, this confederation is closely linked with the government. But this is also the case in Malaysia, Singapore, Mexico, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and many other countries. The Chinese trade unions are not independent from government, but they ensure that workers' demands and concerns are not ignored by government. If the Chinese government were anti-worker, as AFL-CIO propaganda would have it, it would have dramatically reduced its state enterprise sector by now. It is precisely concern about the future of the hundreds of millions of workers in state enterprises that has made the government resist the prescription to radically dismantle the state enterprise sector coming from Chinese neoliberal economists, foreign investors, the business press, and the US government-all of whom are guided by a narrow efficiency/profitability criterion, and are completely insensitive to the sensitivity to employment issues of the government.
The fact is that workers in China probably have greater protection and access to government than industrial workers who live in right-to-work states (where non-union shops are encouraged by law) in the United States. If there is a government that must be targeted by the AFL-CIO for being anti-labor, it must be its own government, which, in collusion with business, has stripped labor of so many of its traditional legal protections and rights that the proportion of US workers unionized is down to only 13 per cent of the work force!
- True, there is much to be done in terms of bringing genuine democracy and greater respect for human rights in China. And certainly, actions like the Tienanmen massacre and the repression of political dissidents must be condemned, in much the same way that Amnesty International severely criticizes the United States for relying on mass incarceration as a principal mechanism of social control. (6) But this is not a repressive regime devoid of legitimacy like the Burmese military junta.
As in the United States and other countries, there is a lot of grumbling about government, but this cannot be said to indicate lack of legitimacy on the part of the government. Again and again, foreign observers in China note that while there might be disaffection, there is widespread acceptance of the legitimacy of the government.
Monopolization of decision making by the Communist Party at the regional and national level is still the case, but relatively free elections now take place in many of the country's rural villages in an effort to deconcentrate power from Beijing to better deal with rural economic problems, according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who is otherwise quite critical of the Chinese leadership. (7)
Indeed, lack of Western-style multiparty systems and periodic competitive elections does not mean that the government is not responsive to people. The Communist Party is all too aware of the fact that its continuing in power is dependent on popular legitimacy. This legitimacy in turn depends on convincing the masses that it is doing an adequate job its fulfilling four goals: safeguarding national sovereignty, avoiding political instability, raising people's standard of living, and maintaining the rough tradition of equality inherited from the period of classical socialism. The drama of recent Chinese history has been the way the party has tried to stay in power by balancing these four concerns of the population. This balancing act has been achieved, Asia expert Chalmers Johnson writes, via an "ideological shift from an all-embracing communism to an all-embracing nationalism [that has] helped to hold Chinese society together, giving it a certain intellectual and emotional energy and stability under the intense pressures of economic transformation". (8)
- As for demand for democratic participation, this is certainly growing and should be strongly supported by people outside China. But it is wishful thinking to claim that US-style forms of democratic expression have become the overwhelming demand of the population. While one might not agree with all the points he makes, a more accurate portrayal of the state of things than that given by the anti-China lobby is provided by the English political philosopher John Gray in his classic work False Dawn:
China's current regime is undoubtedly transitional, but rather than moving towards "democratic capitalism", it is evolving from the western, Soviet institutions of the past into a modern state more suited to Chinese traditions, needs, and circumstances.
Liberal democracy is not on the historical agenda for China. It is very doubtful if the one-child policy, which even at present is often circumvented, could survive a transition to liberal democracy. Yet, as China's present rulers rightly believe, an effective population policy is indispensable if scarcity of resources is not to lead to ecological catastrophe and political crisis.
Popular memories of the collapse of the state and national defenselessness between the world wars are such that any experiment with political liberalization which appears to carry the risk of near-anarchy of post-Soviet Russia will be regarded with suspicion or horror by the majority of Chinese. Few view the break-up of the state other than a supreme evil. The present regime has a potent source of popular legitimacy in the fact that so far it has staved off that disaster. (9)
The Anti-China Trade Campaign: Wrong and Dangerous
It is against this complex backdrop of a country struggling for development under a political system, which, while not democratic along Western lines, is nevertheless legitimate, and which realizes that its continuing legitimacy depends on its ability to deliver economic growth that one must view the recent debate in the US over the granting of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to China.
PNTR is the standard tariff treatment that the United States gives nearly all its trading partners, with the exception of China, Afghanistan, Serbia-Montenegro, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. Granting of PNTR is seen as a key step in China's full accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) since the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement establishing the WTO requires members to extend NTR to other WTO members mutually and without conditions. This is the reason that the fight over PNTR is so significant, in that it is integrally linked to China's full accession to the WTO.
Organized labor is at the center of a motley coalition that is against granting PNTR to China. This coalition includes right wing groups and personalities like Pat Buchanan, the old anti-China lobby linked to the anti-communist Kuomintang Party in Taiwan, protectionist US business groups, and some environmentalist, human rights, and citizens' rights groups. The intention of this right-left coalition is to be able to use trade sanctions to influence China's economic and political behavior as well as to make it difficult for China to enter the WTO.
There are fundamental problems with the position of this alliance, many of whose members are, without doubt, acting out of the best intentions.
First of all, the anti-China trade campaign is essentially another manifestation of American unilateralism. Like many in the anti-PNTR coalition, we do not uphold the free-trade paradigm that underpins the NTR. Like many of them, we do not think that China will benefit from WTO membership. But what is at issue here is not the desirability or non-desirability of the free trade paradigm and the WTO in advancing people's welfare. What is at issue here is Washington's unilateral moves to determine who is to be a legitimate member of the international economic community-in this case, who is qualified to join and enjoy full membership rights in the WTO.
This decision of whether or not China can join the WTO is one that must be determined by China and the 137 member-countries of the WTO, without one power exercising effective veto power over this process. To subject this process to a special bilateral agreement with the United States that is highly conditional on the acceding country's future behavior falls smack into the tradition of unilateralism.
One reason the anti-China trade campaign is particularly disturbing is that it comes on the heels of a series of recent unilateralist acts, the most prominent of which have been Washington's cruise missile attacks on alleged terrorist targets in the Sudan and Afghanistan in August 1998, its bombing of Iraq in December 1998, and the US-instigated 12-week NATO bombardment of Kosovo in 1999. In all three cases, the US refused to seek UN sanction or approval but chose to act without international legal restraints. Serving as the gatekeeper for China's integration into the global economic community is the economic correlate of Washington's military unilateralism.
Second, the anti-China trade campaign reeks of double standards. A great number of countries would be deprived of PNTR status were the same standards sought from China applied to them, including Singapore (where government controls the labor movement), Mexico (where labor is also under the thumb of government), Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (where women are systematically relegated by law and custom to second-class status as citizens), Pakistan (where a military dictatorship reigns), Brunei (where democratic rights are non-existent), to name just a few US allies. What is the logic and moral basis for singling out China when there are scores of other regimes that are, in fact, so much more insensitive to the political, economic, and social needs of their citizenries?
Third, the campaign is marked by what the great Senator J. William Fulbright denounced as the dark side of the American spirit that led to the Vietnam debacle-that is, "the morality of absolute self-assurance fired by the crusading spirit". (10) It draws emotional energy not so much from genuine concerns for human and democratic rights in China but from the knee-jerk emotional ensemble of anti-communism that continues to plague the US public despite the end of the Cold War. When one progressive organizer says that non-passage of the PNTR would inflict defeat on "the brutal, arrogant, corrupt, autocratic, and oligarchic regime in Beijing", the strong language is not unintentional: it is meant to hit the old Cold War buttons to mobilize the old anti-communist, conservative constituency, in the hope of building a right-left populist base that could-somehow-be directed at "progressive" ends.
Fourth, the anti-China trade campaign is intensely hypocritical. As many critics of the campaign have pointed out, the moral right of the US to deny permanent normal trading rights to China on social and environmental grounds is simply nonexistent given its record: the largest prison population in the world, the most state-sponsored executions of any country in the world, the highest income disparities among industrialized countries, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and quasi-slavery conditions for farm workers. (11)
Fifth, the anti-China trade campaign is intellectually flawed. The issue of labor control in China lies at the core of the campaign, which blames China's government for the low wages that produce the very competitively priced goods that are said to contribute to displacing US industries and workers. This is plain wrong: the relatively low wages in China stem less from wage repression than from the dynamics of economic development. Widespread poverty or low economic growth are the main reasons for the low wages in developing countries. Were the state of unionism the central determinant of wage levels, as the AFL-CIO claims, labor costs in authoritarian China and democratic India, with its formally free trade union movement, would not be equal, as they, in fact, are.
Similarly, it is mainly the process of economic growth-the dynamic interaction between the growing productivity of labor, the reduction of the wage-depressing surplus of rural labor, and rising profits-that triggers the rapid rise in wage levels in an economy, as shown in the case of Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore, which had no independent unions and where strikes were illegal during their periods of rapid development. (12)
Saying that the dynamics of development rather than the state of labor organizing is by far the greatest determinant of wage levels is not to say that the organization of labor is inconsequential. Successful organizing has gotten workers a higher level of wages than would be possible were it only the dynamics of economic development that were at work. It is not to argue that labor organizing is not desirable in developing economies. Of course, it is not only desirable but necessary, so that workers can keep more of the value of production for themselves, reduce their exploitation by transnational and state capitalist elites, and gain more control over their conditions of work.
Sixth, the anti-China trade campaign is dishonest. It invokes concern about the rights of Chinese workers and the rights of the Chinese people, but its main objective is to protect American jobs against cheap imports from China. This is cloaking self-interest with altruistic rhetoric. What the campaign should be doing is openly acknowledging that its overriding goal is to protect jobs, which is a legitimate concern and goal. And what it should be working for is not invoking sanctions on human rights grounds, but working out solutions such as managed trade, which would seek to balance the need of American workers to protect their jobs while allowing the market access that allows workers in other countries to keep their jobs and their countries to sustain a certain level of growth while they move to change their development model. (13)
Instead, what the rhetoric of the anti-China trade campaign does is to debase human rights and democratic rights language with its hypocrisy while delegitimizing the objective of protecting jobs-which is a central social and economic right-by concealing it.
Seventh, the anti-China trade campaign is a classic case of blaming the victim. China is not the enemy. Indeed, it is a prisoner of a global system of rules and institutions that allows transnational corporations to take advantage of the differential wage levels of counties at different levels of development to increase their profits, destabilize the global environment by generalizing an export-oriented, high-consumption model of development, and concentrate global income in fewer and fewer hands.
Not granting China PNTR will not affect the functioning of this global system. Not giving China normal trading and investment rights will not harm transnational corporations; they will simply take more seriously the option of moving to Indonesia, Mauritius, or Mexico, where their ability to exact concessions is greater than in China, which can stand up to foreign interests far better than the weak governments of these countries.
What the AFL-CIO and others should be doing is targeting this global system, instead of serving up China as a proxy for it.
A Positive Agenda
The anti-China trade campaign amounts to a Faustian bargain that seeks to buy some space for US organized labor at the expense of real solidarity with workers and progressive worker and environmental movements globally against transnational capital. But by buying into the traditional US imperial response of unilateralism, it will end up eventually eroding the position of progressive labor, environmental, and civil society movements both in the US and throughout the world.
What organized labor and US NGO's should be doing, instead, is articulating a positive agenda aimed at weakening the power of global corporations and multilateral agencies that promote TNC-led globalization.
The first order of business is to not allow the progressive movement to be sandbagged in the pro-permanent normal trade relations, anti-permanent normal trade relations terms of engagement that now frames the debate. While progressives must, for the time being, oppose the more dangerous threat posed by the unilateralists, they should be developing a position on global economic relations that avoids both the free trade paradigm that underlies the PNTR and the unilateralist paradigm of the anti-PNTR forces. The model we propose is managed trade, which allows trading partners to negotiate bilateral and multilateral treaties that address central issues in their relationship-among them, the need to preserve workers jobs in the US with the developing countries' need for market access.
Advocacy of managed trade must, however, be part of a broader campaign for progressive global economic governance. The strategic aim of such a campaign must be the tighter regulation, if not replacement, of the model corporate-led free market development that seeks to do away with social and state restrictions on the mobility of capital at the expense of labor. In its place must be established a system of genuine international cooperation and looser global economic integration that allows countries to follow paths of national and regional development that make the domestic market and regional markets rather than the global market the engine of growth, development, and job creation.
This means support for measures of asset and income redistribution that would create the purchasing power that will make domestic markets viable. It means support for trade measures and capital controls that will give countries more control over their trade and finance so that commodity and capital flows become less disruptive and destabilizing. It means support for regional integration or regional economic union among the developing countries as an alternative to indiscriminate globalization.
A key element in this campaign for a new global economic governance is the abolition of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization that serve as the pillars of the system of corporate-led globalization and their replacement with a pluralistic system of institutions that complement but at the same time check and balance one another, thus giving the developing countries the space to pursue their paths to development.
The IMF, World Bank, and WTO are currently experiencing a severe crisis of legitimacy, following the debacle in Seattle, the April protests in Washington, and the release of the report of the International Financial Institutions Advisory Commission (Meltzer Commission) appointed by the US Congress, which recommends the radical downsizing or transformation of the Bank and Fund. (14) Now is the time for the progressive movement to take the offensive and push for the elimination or radical transformation of these institutions. Yet, here we are, being waylaid from this critical task at this key moment by an all-advised, divisive campaign to isolate the wrong enemy!
Another key thrust of a positive agenda is a coordinated drive by civil society groups in the North and the South to pressure the US, China, and all other governments to ratify and implement all conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and give the ILO more effective authority to monitor, supervise, and adjudicate implementation of these conventions. This campaign must be part of a broader effort to support the formation of genuine labor unions in China, the Southern United States, and elsewhere in a spirit of real workers' solidarity. This, instead of relying on government trade sanctions that are really self-serving rather than meant to support Third World workers, is the route to the creation of really firm ties of solidarity across North-South lines.
This social and economic program must be tied to a strategy for protecting the global environment that also eschews sanctions as an approach and puts the emphasis on promoting sustainable development models in place of the export-led, high-consumption development model; pushes the adoption of common environmental codes that prevent transnational firms from pitting one country against another in their search for the zero cost environmental regimes; and promotes an environmental Marshall Plan aimed at transferring appropriate green process and production technologies to China and other developing countries.
Above all, this approach must focus not on attacking China and the South but on strategically changing the production and consumption behavior and levels in the North that are by far the biggest source of environmental destabilization.
Finally, a positive agenda must have as a central element civil society groups in the North working constructively with people's movements in China, the United States, and other countries experiencing democratic deficits to support the expansion of democratic space. While the campaign must be uncompromising in denouncing acts of repression like the Tienanmen Square massacre and Washington's use of mass incarceration as a tool of social control, it must avoid imposing the forms of Western procedural democracy on others and hew to the principle that it is the people in these countries themselves that must take the lead in building democracy according to their rhythm, traditions, and cultures.
The anti-PNTR coalition is an alliance born of opportunism. In its effort to block imports from China, the AFL-CIO is courting the more conservative sectors of the US population, including the Buchananite right wing, by stirring the old Cold War rhetoric. Nothing could be a more repellent image of this sordid project than John Sweeney, James Hoffa, President of the Teamsters, and Pat Buchanan holding hands in the anti-China trade rally on April 12, 2000, with Buchanan promising to make Hoffa his top negotiator of trade, if he won the race for president.
Some environmental groups and citizens groups which have long but unsuccessfully courted labor, have, in turn, endorsed the campaign because they see it as the perfect opportunity to build bridges to the AFL-CIO. What we have, as a result, is an alliance built on the assertion of US unilateralism rather than on the cornerstone of fundamental shared goals of solidarity, equity, and environmental integrity.
This is not a progressive alliance but a right-wing populist alliance in the tradition of the anti-communist Big Government-Big Capital-Big Labor alliance during the Cold War, the labor-capital alliance in the West that produced the Exclusion and Ant-Miscegenation Acts against Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and, more recently, the populist movement that has supported the tightening of racist immigration laws by emphasizing the divide between workers who are citizens and workers who are not, with the latter being deprived of basic political rights.
It is a policy that will, moreover, feed global instability by lending support to the efforts of the US right and the Pentagon to demonize China as The Enemy and resurrect Containment as America's Grand Strategy, this time with China instead of the Soviet Union as the foe in a paradigm designed to advance American strategic hegemony.
As in every other instance of unprincipled unity between the right and some sectors of the progressive movement, progressives will find that it will be the right that will walk away with the movement while they will be left with not even their principles.
It is time to move away from this terribly misguided effort to derail the progressive movement by demonizing China, and to bring us all back to the spirit of Seattle as a movement of citizens of the world against corporate-led globalization and for genuine international cooperation.
1. Quoted in John Gershman, "How to Debate the China Issue without China Bashing", Progressive Response, Vol. 4, No. 17, April 20, 2000.
Copyright 2000 Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First