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The China Trade (March 3, 1999)

One of the most enduring farces in American foreign policy has been underway in China this week: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright allegedly engaging in tough talk about human rights.

Just how tough the talk was can be gauged by the fact that Albright has publicly reaffirmed US policy of not linking trade and human rights, and to underline the point she is encouraging China to join the World Trade Organization, the US-dominated association that is dedicated to affirming the primacy of foreign commerce over any other priorities, human, moral and spiritual.

One can’t blame the Chinese for getting irritated at these posturings, even as US firms flood into China to take advantage of cheap labor, child labor, prison labor, slave labor. Of course the niceties have to be observed. To take one example, Disney has a splendid code of corporate conduct, which recommends compliance with China’s labor laws which, on paper, stipulate a 40-hour work week, two days rest a week and a maximum of three hours overtime a day. Meanwhile investigators from the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee recently described the Disney code as “just a piece of paper. It is not seriously respected in many factories which produce Disney’s products.” Chan Ka Wai, who was involved in producing the report on Chinese labor practices, said that in some factories making Disney products workers had spent 16 hours a day at their posts, sometimes up to seven days a week. In some cases, the pay for five hours overtime was no more than a few cents. In other cases workers hadn’t been paid for three months.

There have been plenty of other reports discussing the awfulness of Chinese labor practices, including straightforward slave camps of Chinese prisoners. the idea that a few quiet words of moral reproof from Madeleine Albright is going to make a difference is an insult to human intelligence. No one believes it.

Boosters of the China trade argue that the mere fact that Chinese workers are making products destined for the export sector is somehow a plus, and that for the US to impose real sanctions would be a disaster, in which the placid light of progress-through-commerce would be dimmed by brutish economic atavism, isolationism, not to mention American moral evangelism. This is one of the President Bill Clinton’s big themes: trade or perish in the one-big-world of the twenty-first century.

But there is nothing intrinsically good about foreign trade, however much the individuals who make money out of such activities protest to the contrary. 

China has a growing class of local entrepreneurs only too happy to muster ill-paid peasant laborers to work long hours in awful conditions, so that these entrepreneurs can get their cut of the export action. The peasants now crammed into these factories can no longer return to lands once communally farmed but now stolen by other entrepreneurs and relentlessly degraded. These workers’ lot is akin to those British peasants whose common lands were stolen in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries while they were herded into mills, worked 70 hours a week, kept going on tea and sugar and gins, while their daughters went into prostitution to help keep the family afloat.

The only way to end these patterns of exploitation, degrading almost beyond the imagination of man, is to stipulate flatly that trade on such basis is infamous. Would one buy a pair of trousers made by a brutalized prisoner in a US penitentiary paid a few cents a month while unionized textile workers starve? Hopefully not. Would one buy a similar pair of trousers made by a Chinese prisoner? Hopefully not. And the only way to engineer this is not to chide the prison wardens here or in China but to forbid or drastically penalize the sale of such products. There’s no other way. Who wants a pair of prison-made pants with a bogus stamp of approval? This is like a meat-eater wanting a stamp on his beefsteak saying the cow died happy under the stun gun.

Who can doubt that the people of Mexico are measurably worse off today than they were before the North American Free Trade Agreement? Mexican peasant agriculture has been destroyed, environmental degradation accelerated and millions of people forced into slums in Mexico or compelled to seek jobs in North America, subject there to the vilest forms of intimidation and abuse.

The economic and moral credentials of the trade-or-die model are looking more wretched by the day. The wastelands of Indonesia or Thailand or Brazil prove the point. What we need today are absolute interdicts on trade that involves unbearable exploitation, just as domestically we need the same interdicts. Then countries like China and the United States will be forced to look at other models of employment and economic well-being and this — would be no bad thing.

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