American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
China, NTR, and Liberal Imperialism
Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs for the AFSC in New England. AFSC is in the process of formulating its response to NTR legislation for China. The following article reflects the views of its author. An extended version can be found at www.afsc.org/pes.htm
With the election of Chen Shui-bian as Taiwan's new president, tensions across the Taiwan Strait may soon overshadow the debate about extending permanent "Normal Trade Relations" (NTR, formerly "Most Favored Nation" or MFN) to China. The lack of discussion and the renewed specter of anti-Asian racism and imperialism are disturbing. Second and third thoughts are in order before jumping on the anti-NTR bandwagon.
First things first
The proposed legislation for "Normal Trade Relations Treatment for the People's Republic of China" is designed to bring the US into compliance with WTO regulations that provide that all members grant one another normal trade relations on a permanent basis. Congressional refusal to extend NTR to China will not prevent China's accession to the WTO. It would, however, place the US in violation of WTO regulations and make US-based corporations--and thus some jobs--liable to discriminatory treatment by the Chinese government.
Continuing annual debates over renewing NTR status for China are a legacy of the Cold War when China was linked with the Soviet Union as a "non-market" economy. Many governments and many scholars have concluded that the annual debates have done little to advance human rights in China. They have succeeded in traumatizing US-Chinese relations. The annual review has served as a powerful club wielded by Jesse Helms and his right-wing allies who seek to make China the new enemy needed by righteous Americans and by "Scoop" Jackson liberals who preferred nuclear-armed Cold War confrontation to the difficult dialogues of détente.
Seattle was an enormous victory for people committed to economic justice. Two "progressive" forces were at play there. First was the struggle against racist inequities in the global economy: "South" vs. "North", the struggle of half the world which lives on less than $2 a day against the conspicuous consumption of the privileged few. Second was the struggle of wage earners and environmentalists vs. corporations.
Now tensions between those two "progressive" forces at play in Seattle are overwhelming the possibilities of joint struggle. For some, who are willing to sacrifice means for ends, defeating permanent NTR for China is seen as a way to block further WTO expansion and to keep well-paying jobs in the US. It offers possibilities of a second victory, of holding the Seattle coalition together, and of keeping issues alive while possibly broadening the coalition. Tragically, this tactical approach has serious downsides: it reinforces the North/South struggle; it vilifies China as the new Post-Cold War enemy; and it reinforces widespread racism against Asian-Americans.
What Does China Get from WTO Membership and NTR?
After 20 years of double-digit economic expansion, China's per capita income has reached $700 per year, roughly $2 a day, but China's economic growth is slowing. Estimates tell us that 26-31 million Chinese are unemployed; that 13.8 million receive only partial payment for their labor; that 100 million Chinese are "internal immigrants" having abandoned the countryside in pursuit of urban work; and that 12 to 20 million Chinese live in "absolute poverty" lacking the food, shelter, and clothing essential for life. In these circumstances economic growth is essential. Since the armed repression of Tiananmen Square, the Chinese "social contract" has been widely understood to be acceptance of Communist Party rule in exchange for continuing economic modernization and growth. The Chinese government, like many in the Third World, sees foreign investment as an engine for job creation, economic growth, increased technological sophistication, and engagement with the global capitalist economy on somewhat more equal terms.
China is also eager to enjoy the status of WTO membership, pledging to work with India in advocating for Third World interests. It has been anxious to enter the WTO before Taiwan, and it wants to liberate itself from the annual, humiliating Congressional MFN/NTR debate.
What Does the US Get?
For the US, NTR is the price to be paid for prying open Chinese markets, with their fabled ability to absorb surplus production and generate profits. With China in the WTO, US corporations will have greater access to 1.2 billion additional customers. WTO rules require that Chinese trade barriers come down. Given China's limited technologies and low wages, this is expected to mean increased Chinese exports of textiles and steel (with related US job losses) and significant increases of US high tech and financial services, investments, and exports, as well as increased agricultural exports to China (with related Chinese job losses and dislocations.) Both the Beijing and the Clinton Administration claim that the US will receive more immediate direct benefits than China--including an opportunity to rectify the $85 billion trade deficit with China.
Labor Standards and Human Rights
While China is widely seen as an emerging economic and political power, it is currently a poor developing nation, and should be judged accordingly. Author William Grieder summarizes: "Long working hours, unreasonable wage cuts and remuneration, poor living conditions, a dangerous working environment, lack of health provisions, arbitrary dismissals, harsh and abusive treatment are the common problems." Independent trade unions are prohibited. In state owned industries, dependence on company housing, child and health care severely limits workers' freedom of action. Among the worst practices is the "three-in-one" design of many low-wage factories. Workers, often locked in for the night, sleep in a dormitory on the third floor with the factory and warehouse below. They are defenseless when fires break out. Even where standards and laws exist, they are imperfectly enforced. China lacks the necessary resources and is plagued with corruption.
There are also contradictions. We insist that human rights, as we understand them, are universal, yet we forget the seven and a half centuries of politcal struggle and cultural transformation that were required to move from the Magna Carta to near-universal suffrage in the US. The Chinese state and political culture are authoritarian and in the midst of a major transition, whose outcome we cannot know. Chinese history and culture lead most Chinese to view "human rights" differently than the West. For much of the five millennia of Chinese history, this nation of 1.2 billion people has been held together and ruled by a hierarchical authoritarian political system legitimized by Confucian values and ideology. Breakdowns of this order have resulted in chaos and catastrophe: the deaths of tens of millions from floods, famines, foreign invasions, and civil war. Guarantees of food, shelter, clothing, and medical care are widely seen as more essential human rights than civil or political freedoms which threaten possible chaos and seem to spawn poverty, racism, and handgun violence in the midst of the West's plenty. The fundamental lesson taken by most Chinese modernizers from the implosion of the Soviet Union is that sustainable economic transformation can only take place in an environment of political stability.
There is greater freedom of religion than Jesse Helms would have us believe, but after a century and a half of foreign occupations, colonization, and humiliation, it is limited by fears of foreign loyalties, for example Catholic loyalty to the Pope. The crackdown on the Falun Gong sect followed a demonstration in which 10,000 practitioners surrounded China's central political compound, and questions about Falun Gong's goals grew when sect members tried to replace Mao's portrait in Tiananmen Square with one of their expatriate leader.
Imperialism, Containment, and Racism
Since the Opium War (1839-42) fought by Britain with US support for the unlimited right to sell opium to the Chinese, successive Chinese governments have sought to restore Chinese unity and its role as a world power. Western dominance of China has been marked by racism, from John Quincy Adams' argument that the Opium War was "a battle between progress and Asian barbarity" to the current scapegoating of Wen Ho Lee and other Chinese-American and Chinese scientists.
Common to the Clinton Administration's East Asia Strategy, its military doctrine, its "redefined" and expanded military alliance with Japan, renewed military "training exercises" with the Philippine military, charges of Chinese (but not Taiwanese) tampering in US election campaigns, and the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, is the focus on China as the enemy, the new "evil empire." The US seeks to extract a "grand bargain" from China by threatening and moving to deploy "Theater Missile Defenses" (TMD), in Japan, at sea, and possibly in Taiwan. TMD could theoretically "neutralize" all of China's missile forces, functionally restoring the skewed power relations that prevailed after the Opium War.
But even without TMD, the US exercises overwhelming power in relation to China. The US has approximately 7500 strategic nuclear warheads that can be instantly targeted against China while Beijing may have 20 capable of reaching the US mainland. The "conventional" weapons imbalance is even greater.
China's Threat to Taiwan
Withholding permanent NTR for China will not solve, but sharpen, tensions across the Taiwan Strait. It could lead to a regional war with global consequences. Chen Shui-bian's election confirms the depth of Taiwanese commitments to reform and greater independence and the self-defeating nature of Beijing's military threats.
The Taiwan crisis is compounded by the fundamentally different ways the West and China view Taiwan. Many in Taiwan and the West believe that with the introduction of electoral democracy, the Taiwanese are entitled to national self-determination. The Chinese view is that for a century Taiwan has been forcefully alienated from the mainland, first by Japanese colonialism and then by the US 7th Fleet. Restoring Taiwan to China, even under the "one country, two systems" formula is seen as essential to ending the era of humiliation and essential for Chinese security. (The US makes similar claims about Cuba.)
In fact, China does not have the military means to invade Taiwan, but it can inflict considerable trauma with missile "tests" or attacks. Yet, given China's dependence on Taiwanese investments, a major Chinese attack against Taiwan would be self-destructive. And all involved know it could lead to an "unthinkable" nuclear confrontation with the United States. The wise approach is to encourage cross-Strait dialogue and to permit time and increasing economic and social integration to heal the divisions.
It is galling that most US critics of China's human rights violations are silent about the two million people languishing in US prisons. Some argue that China should be sanctioned for forcing prisoners to produce goods to be sold on the market, but this is also a growing phenomenon in US prisons. Beijing reminds the world that Washington ignores an array of US human rights violations: racial discrimination, poverty, economic inequities, the lack of guaranteed medical care, and children shooting children and teachers.
The problem of double standards raises concerns that racism and old fashioned anti-communism may also be at play. If China is to be denied permanent NTR due to human rights violations, what about Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, Saudi Arabia's disregard for women's rights, the lack of free speech and right to organize in Singapore, or President Estrada's dispatch of troops to police Manila shopping malls?
Possible consequences of NTR rejection
It is important not to overstate the possible consequences of either victory or defeat of NTR for China. Nonetheless, it is possible that defeat could serve as the catalyst for a US-Chinese Cold War. At the very least, if permanent extension of NTR is denied, political dynamics within China will require the government to implement its threat to discriminate against US-based corporations in favor of those based in Japan and Europe. Of greater concern are the political forces within China that may be released if China is once again publicly humiliated. We were given a hint of what this might look like last summer when Prime Minister Zhu Rongji journeyed to the US to close the deal and was unexpectedly rebuffed by President Clinton. Coming in the aftermath of the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the affront resulted in intense Chinese political infighting. Hard-liners appeared to threaten the more liberal leadership of Zhu Rongji and Jiang Xiamin. Another public humiliation could crystallize a US-Chinese confrontation in much the same way that the erection of tariff barriers against Japan in the early 1930s reinforced Japanese militarism, and made the US-Japanese war "inevitable."
An Alternative Approach
Of necessity, the entry of the Chinese work force (about one-fifth of the world's potential workers) into the global marketplace plus that of an almost equal number of Indian workers will depress global wages. Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, South African, and US workers all have the right to decent pay and humane working and living conditions. The challenge is to achieve economic justice for all of them.
Instead of futile and self-destructive efforts to continue to marginalize one fifth of humanity, we can do more to improve Chinese labor standards and human rights, building on the legacies of 1980s and '90s economic justice organizing, by focusing on the complicity of US-based transnational corporations in the exploitation of Chinese workers. In campaigns for corporate responsibility and codes of conduct we have learned the power of collecting hard data, naming corporate names, and dragging companies out from behind closed doors. Rather than pressing Congress to self-righteously sanction China, we should demand laws that ensure that US corporations and shareholders do not profit from exploitation.
William Grieder has put forward several constructive proposals: First, he calls for Congressional legislation requiring hard data from US-based companies on where and how they produce overseas. This information can provide the foundation for action here in the US and by "voiceless peoples on the other end of the global system." Second, we can press Congress to prohibit importation of any goods made in factoties not independently certified as employing standard fire prevention design and equipment, or made by an enterprise identified as a major polluter. This would affect hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers and countless communities where the clothes we wear, the toys our children play with, and electronic appliances that fill our homes are made. Third, Congress could pass legislation that gives people in other nations standing in US courts to sue US companies for their violations. Of course, when legislation is inadequate, we can boycott products of US-based companies that persist in manufacturing or contracting for goods produced in unsafe and exploitative environments.
In sum, rather than use military threats and trade sanctions in a futile effort to coerce China to become more like the US, we will do more for the Chinese people and for ourselves by actively demonstrating the universality of our commitments to humanity.