Thursday, December 28, 2006

No new labor contract law for now

The English-language China Daily reports that the National People's Congress has put off a vote on the second draft of the country's new Labor Contract Law (see Vote on labour contract law put off). According to the article, the postponement came--in part--as a result of strong opposition from employers' groups.

In fact, if China Youth Daily Online is to be believed, the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai is not the only of these groups (see 劳动合同法该如何偏向劳动者). 190,000 comments have been made on the law to date.

Like China's Marriage Law or oft-postponed Property Law, this might shape up to be a landmark piece of legislation in terms of public debate.

It is only natural that employers will want more flexibility on hiring and firing, unions, etc. That's their role. And, for those of us with the workers who are not entirely enthralled with warm, fuzzy, delicious CSR, it should be only natural to take the employers to the mat.

Debate is good. Labor should keep its voice loud.

[Photo courtesy of Business in Asia]

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Pinochet is dead--I hope

Pinochet is dead. It's a pity he wasn't behind bars when he gave up the ghost.

There's still a core of people ready to revive him as the classic developmental-state autocrat. Columnists for the Washington Post, LA Times and others are--with the necessary caveats--praising Pinochet's tough choices to save his country from "communism," his championing of the middle class--that pure, blameless, hopeful, apolitical creature beloved by liberals on sight (but especially when far off and out of sight)--and his alleged success at "restarting" the economy.

Never mind that Allende's government was the victim of a concerted campaign of economic sabotage before Pinochet took over (the Nixon administation spoke of making Chile's economy "scream"), that the first years of Pinochet's rule were marked by utter economic ruin, or that Chile's fortunes eventually turned around as much because of state re-intervention in the economy as the cleverness of "the Chicago boys."

If he wasn't an economic savior (other than in terms of his own ill-gotten gains), what did Pinochet accomplish? He left thousands dead or tortured. He divided his nation, as last week's protests and counter-protests show. And, equally importantly, I am told Pinochet created a deadened political culture in Chile and a disengaged and wary youth.

This comes as the Economist reports that confidence in democratic institutions in Latin America is higher now than it has been for years. Corruption may be down. Businesses in the region are reviving.

And the Left on the continent has arguably never been stronger.

So, of course the old coup plotters are back. They nearly knocked off Chavez (with kudos from the NY Times). They were underhanded to say the least in Mexico's last election. And they have plans for Bolivia's Santa Cruz (see today's NY Times article).

Bush tells us that democracy is rough. But south of the border, he seems eager to smooth things out. Give things back to the good old boys who shook their heads at Pinochet's excesses but still did business.

Pinochet remains a model--in the minds of some--for every state facing a little too much democracy, a "transition" figure to, uh, democracy again. But without all that messy "participation."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Right and Labor

In regards to labor solidarity courtesy of conservatives, see Alec Dubro's The Right Stands Up For Labor on

Funny how the Republicans want the workers of the world to unite--as long as the workers are in Caracas or Tehran or Havana....

Good, new stuff on Chinese labor

Another good series seems to be on the way from Global Labor Strategies: "Fair Globalization", which sets out to move beyond "protectionism" and "free trade", with a focus on China-America trade. Also, see Andrew Leonard's excellent "The Chinese Sweatshop Paradox", which came to my attention courtesy, as always, of JKD.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Questions about FOCA

What are we to think of the recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation? Or, rather, about China's involvement in Africa generally?

The international financial institutions are, of course, worried by the lack of conditions on China's deals with the Africa. They say this may undo efforts aimed at promoting "discipline" and "good governance" on the continent--patronizing words, but with some merit. Others, like economist Jeffrey Sachs, see China's investment in Africa as a development tidal wave, which will do more for the continent's poor than decades of Western aid--even if a bit of the money is siphoned off by corruption.

I'm most concerned with solidarity.

Under Mao Zedong, China, with its advocacy at the Bandung Conference and later its "Three Worlds Theory", proposed a special role for de-colonizing nations, beyond superpower rivalry.

In Africa, Beijing gave rhetorical backing to South Africans, Algerians and others shaking off Western rule. It also supported wars of "national liberation" against both colonial regimes and post-colonial governments--with guns, training, and money.

Unfortunately, despite Mao's grand rhetoric, this support was often as much about wearing down and distracting the Soviet Union as it was about the substance of the African insurgencies. In Angola, for example, China (and the United States, South Africa and Zaire!) sided with UNITA and the FNLA--not the more progressive but Moscow-backed MPLA.

More unambiguously positive were the scholarships China gave to thousands of African students to attend its universities. These students sometimes encountered racism from their Chinese peers (there were riots over African men dating Chinese girls in the 1980s). But bonds were established such that young people in China viewed their lives and those of Africans as part of one historical movement.

What will China's new engagement with the continent mean for CHINESE people? How will this help them situate their country?

Will the ordinary exchanges between African workers and Chinese migrant workers toiling thousands of miles from Hunan or Sichuan matter the most? Or will the neo-colonial actions of companies, like the Chinese mining firm in Zambia that shot its strikerst? Will China eventually distance itself from governments like Sudan's? Or will it use Sudan as a rallying point for "non-interference" and "sovereignty"?

And what will this mean for democracy back home?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

[The above video may or may not be viewable from China]

Roughly a year after America's Sago Mine distaster, here's a powerful video on mine deaths from China. With first the Chinese national anthem and then the Internationale playing in the background and numbing images upon images of grieving miners' families it's hard not to feel simple, raw anger.

But a solution to these tragedies must come along a number of tracks--improved rural economies that will leave people more choices (at present, mines pay much more than other jobs in the countryside), effective supervision of local governments, strong penalties for bosses and politicians who turn a blind eye to safety concerns, an independent voice for workers and a willingness to push ahead on these issues, to publicize them even when they become "sensitive."

Note: I am not sure where the makers of the video got their statistics at its end.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Back to China...

What should the newly triumphant Democrats do about China?

It may be tempting for them to bash China, as opposition parties always do and presidents usually do during their first two years in office, before they find out they need the P.R.C. more than they thought--in Korea, in the U.N., on counter-terrorism and arms control, etc. It may be tempting to zig and zag as Clinton did, tying trade to rights one day and pushing PNTR the next.

But if the Democrats can hold themselves together, they could make real progress.

They could push real labor protections in China if they avoided the temptation to wrap the subject up in the futile attempt to protect every textile mill at home. They could raise human rights issues generally by approaching issues through a humble, real dialogue with the Chinese leadership (after Guantanamo and American torture planes from Europe, humility is definitely in order). They could coordinate better with the European Union's China policy.

Most importantly, they can find a balance between championing the world's hopes for Chinese democracy and maintaining the stability of China--internal and in its international relations--that is the prerequisite for a healthy democratic transition.

Here's hoping the party is up to the task!


So, we won!

And in response to those who would say that the Democrats took back the House (and maybe the Senate) by pretending to be Republicans, I would reply... yes, in some cases, but no in many more.

Democrats won in rural states by putting the language of class back into their campaigns. As Bob Moser writes for The Nation in The New Southern Strategy, candidates like Webb and McCaskill surged ahead not by becoming pro-life or bashing gays (they refused to do either) but by fighting for "working families" and campaigning hard in areas that suburban Democrats had turned their noses up at.

If the Democrats lost the South over race, they can win it back by transcending race like the best of the Southern Populists did at the beginning of the twentieth century, when banks and big landowners were recognized as the common enemy of decent laboring people, whatever their skin color.

But this will require our constant attention; we can't let the Democrats stray once in office. No more bankruptcy bills or wishy-washiness on health care.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dirty 2006 Election Tactics

A break from Chinese issues:

I'm from Virginia and some of the stuff coming out of the Republican election campaign there is disgusting. Think Progress reports:

"The head of the Virginia Board of Elections, Jean Jensen, tells MSNBC that 'the FBI is now investigating allegations of voter intimidation and voter suppression.' State officials have documented 'dozens of phone calls that were made to heavily Democratic precincts in which the people who were receiving the calls were either given incorrect information about polling sites [or] misdirected about election laws.'"

Not mentioned here is that the calls were directed at heavily Latino and African-American neighborhoods.

This follows the not-so-subtly-race-baiting ad by Republicans in Tennessee directed at candidate Ford. Misleading flyers that try to link Republican candidate Steele in Maryland to African American leaders who have NOT endorsed him. Flyers to Orange County Latino voters warning them of the crime of voting illegally. And the minority voter intimidation of 2004---in Ohio, Wisconsin, etc.

The same is true abroad. Republicans who were part of the religious-media-government machine in support Contra terrorism in the 1980s seem unable to let go of Nicaragua, where they cut their political teeth. Numerous 80s ideologues have traveled south of the border to campaign against Daniel Ortega's election bid, a blatant interference in that country's democracy (which was established, it should be re-emphasized under Sandinista control, not under Samoza).

So, these are the people we have waving the flag of democracy? These are the people who are making the whole issue one of whether or not Bush has "gone too far" in spreading democracy in the world?

Substance matters.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

China's New Labor Contract Law and Corporate Hypocrisy

Multinationals have long blamed abuses of workers in their factories in China on the peculiarities of the country’s political system, arguing—quite rightly—that the Chinese government, especially at the local level, does not do enough to enforce its own laws, which are in turn argued to be too vague.

However, faced with the prospect of real labor rights regulation, the same companies who once talked so earnestly about rule of law have balked. Many corporations have joined a protest against draft revisions to the Labor Contract Law of the People’s Republic of China, which would restrict corporations’ ability to hire temporary, un-contracted workers, expand the ability of unions to negotiate working conditions, and most importantly, apply tough criminal penalties to sweatshop bosses.

Shoe giant Nike, for example, used to argue that “it is not realistic nor wise” to demand that companies divest from nations like China that do not have strong collective bargaining traditions. According to Nike, “It is more effective to stay invested in these countries and build greater recognition for these rights.”

This is an entirely reasonable position. Yet the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, of which Nike is a member, objects to the new Contract Law because, “It is not feasible to state that an employer’s regulations and policies shall be void if they are not adopted through negotiation with the trade union.”

In other words, unions are great in theory, as another bullet point on some vague, aspirational “corporate code of conduct”— just not when you have to actually negotiate with them.

The Chamber of Commerce even lectures Beijing, like some wise elder brother, “National legislation would better not to be too detail-oriented. And it would be better for local authorities to work out such details according to local situations.”

Weren’t companies saying that the laws were too “loose” and varied before? And aren’t local authorities precisely the ones that supposedly can’t be trusted with formulating and fairly administering the law?

The real issue at stake here is not this one law, but who gets to shape the moral community of the shop floor—capitalists alone, or capitalists alongside labor and the state? What is “fair”? What is a “rational” way of doing business?

Multinationals have warned that the Labor Contract Law means a return to the labor-management relations that prevailed under China’s old planned economy.
Would this be such a bad thing?

There certainly were not enough incentives in the Mao era. Workers enjoyed virtually guaranteed lifetime employment at factories, regardless of their performance.

And until the 1980s, employees were locked in tight patron-client relationships that Alexander Walder, in a pioneering study, described as “Communist neo-traditionalism.”

Yet because of the close-knit nature of socialist-era factory life, workers also commanded a strong voice in plant decisions. And they had to be treated with a minimum of dignity for the whole, precarious system, based on campaigns and slogans, to function.

It is this reciprocity, the idea that a corporation can’t just plow ahead but must rally workers behind its proposals, that companies are fighting against in China—and in other parts of the world.

The Chinese government should not bend to the Chamber of Commerce’s pressure. Most of these big shots will not leave China if the law is enacted, despite their threats—the law is not really all that harsh and China has many pluses in its favor like solid infrastructure and relative political stability.

Those companies that do leave will make way for progress. China cannot compete forever for the bottom rung of the wage ladder if it wants to boost consumption at home. The country must follow the lead of cities like Shanghai in attracting high-skilled and high-paying blue collar jobs.

This will require a changed education policy, new investment incentives… and stronger worker protections like the draft Labor Contract Law.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The New Left

A great piece from the NY TImes magazine: China's New Left Calls For Social Alternative by Pankaj Mishra. It's funny how China's principled, reasonable Left gets such little press.

Instead, Western readers are treated to an extended (two-decades now!) collective cry of surpise that--shock!--China is a capitalist country run by a Leninist government (like the Leninist governments that once ruled Taiwan and plenty of other places that were anything but socialist, but that's another story). That story is old.

It is time to move beyond marveling at the contradictions of China and look to the people with prescriptions.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Labor strategies for China

Brendan Smith, Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello have an interesting piece on Global Labor Strategies entitled "China's Emerging Labor Movement." In it they argue that China is in the early stages of a full-fledged labor movement. Like workers in the United States before the introduction of the Wagner Act, Chinese workers must organize outside the law and without the representation of proper unions--for now.

Smith, Brecher and Costello approve of China Labour Bulletin's "CC-2005 Campaign" of exploiting the loophole in Chinese labor law that allows workers to collectively bargain on their own if there are no ACFTU representatives on their shop floor. In campaigns like CC-2005 the authors see the possibility of transforming China's thousands of protests (87,000 last year alone) into something more solid.

I find their historical analogy compelling. However, there are two things worth noting.

First, many of China's protests are in the countryside, not factories. This is not important because of some Marxist dogmatic distinction between farmers and proletarians. It matters because China is huge and protests are so spread out and so cut off from each other (due to government censorship and a documented penchant on the part of protesters to AVOID linking up with others for their own safety) that they do not necessarily pose any threat to the state or capital. Many countries--India, across Latin America, etc.--have done just fine with massive unrest as long as it is scattered.

Second, the Chinese state's capacity for repression exceeds that of the U.S. at the beginning of the twentieth century (when China too had a powerful labor movement). Nor is there a separate party within the state to take advantage of / moderate / channel popular discontent, as Roosevelt did.

This is not to say that a real, fairly unified labor movement can't be built. And China Labour Bulletin's plan is the clearest on the table yet. But we must keep innovating, based on what makes the Chinese case different.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Yardley's Article

I've enjoyed Jim Yardley's writing in the past, especially his pieces on environmental degradation. Yardley's articles, with their emphasis on economics and everyday people's lives, are often a refreshing counterpoint to the elite, stuffy, "final stamp of importance courtesy of the NY Times"-style scoops by Joseph Kahn.

But what to make of the article today Dead Bachelors in China Still Find Wives? What does this article add?

I'm not exactly against cultural, pseudo-anthropological stuff. Public excitement for all things China has the benefit of allowing a wider range of reporting from the P.R.C.--from pop culture to family life to political intrigue to class tensions-- than the American media will support from almost any other part of the world, save perhaps Iraq.

Yet I cringe when an obscure practice in Shanxi and Shaanxi gets splashed across the front pages of the Times, when there are so many other trends to pay attention to. Why barge in on these farmers practices, which clearly harm no one? Why not focus on aspects of China's tradition and change that lend themselves more to fruitful, comparative analysis?

Should I cringe? Am I just being defensive? But again, what does this article exactly add?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

American and Chinese Nationalisms

Pei Minxin has an excellent quote on American nationalism:

"Any examination of the deeper sources of anti-Americanism should start with an introspective look at American nationalism. But in the United States, this exercise, which hints at serious flaws in the nation's character, generates little enthusiasm. Moreover, coming to terms with today's growing animosity toward the United States is intellectually contentious because of the two paradoxes of American nationalism: First, although the United States is a highly nationalistic country, it genuinely does not see itself as such. Second, despite the high level of nationalism in American society, U.S. policymakers have a remarkably poor appreciation of the power of nationalism in other societies and have demonstrated neither skill nor sensitivity in dealing with its manifestations abroad."

His full article, The Paradoxes of American Nationalism, goes on to mix criticism of U.S. patriotism with an appreciation for its spontaneous, grassroots (i.e. not top-down, propagandistic) quality and spirit of volunteerism.

Where does Chinese nationalism stand in contrast to America's? My sense is that it is more self-conscious / self-aware and more clearly defined by historical memory than its U.S. counterpart (specific historical events appear to ultimately hold comparatively little importance for America's self-image, which is more grounded in a grand "sweep of history"). But China's patriotism shares with the United States a "completeness"--for lack of a better word--that I don't know of any other countries possessing. Outsiders are only ever guests in the formation of our nations' respective nationalisms.

America's "remarkably poor appreciation of the power of nationalism in other societies" has been shown in its tragic intervention against essentially patriotic movements in Vietnam and elsewhere. Hopefully, U.S. policymakers will show more awareness as they come up against China's dreams.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Toyota Strike

On the subject of labor solidarity...

After a long-running dispute with labor organizers in one of its plants in the Phillipines, during which Toyota fired over two hundred workers who attended a union meeting and several workers were arrested or injured by security forces, the auto giant ignored a decision by the Phillipines' Supreme Court and went ahead and set up a company-controlled union of its own.

Protests and petition drives have started in Australia, Ukraine, South Africa, Korea, Russia and elsewhere, with workers pressuring Japanese embassies in the hope that the Japanese government will rein in its company (see the articles IMF Affiliates Plan Mass Mobilizations for September 12 from the International Metal Workers Federation and International Action Support Toyota Workers from the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union).

Imagine if something like this happened over companies' actions in China. Or, one day, if Chinese workers went on strike for workers in another country!

It all seems far off, but that that is the kind of people-to-people cooperation that the human rights world should have as its model---not top-down, self-righteous pronouncements from Western governments and not industry and trade union protectionism hiding as "fair trade" morality.

The point is to be in the same boat, to think of problems as problems, not countries and cultures.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The right to solidarity strikes in Britain

In regards to one of the most basic acts of solidarity, the ability to strike in support of others' grievances, the push for a Trade Union Freedom Bill in Britain is interesting. John McDonnell, chair of the Labour Representation Committee and Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, has an article on the bill, "Give Us Back Our Basic Rights", in the New Statesman.

Friday, September 08, 2006

ACFTU zigs and zags

The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) seems about as certain of its message as Joe Lieberman on the campaign trail.

One day it puts itself forward as a business-friendly alternative to foreign labor movements. For example, a particularly galling China Daily piece featured an ACFTU official in a Korean-owned factory in China disparaging the "too-powerful union" in Korea that was responsible for driving his employer to China and landing him his job.

Another day, the ACFTU flexes its muscle for the world media by pushing Wal-Mart to accept union organizing in its Chinese stores (in its stores, mind you, not its factories but STILL a victory, I believe, for the push to unionize Wal-Mart worldwide).

The union is experimenting with collective bargaining, though the contracts it has signed have so far mainly merely re-stated the legal obligations of management and labor--no wages or hours or anything concrete. And it is opening law aid clinics for workers.

Workers Daily, the ACFTU's paper, contains some good reporting and solid advice columns for migrant workers.

And now, as David Wolf has noted, the ACFTU is in the strange position of being used as a punishment by the government for wayward corporations. In Wolf's words, "Be good to your people, or we'll unionize you" (see his post Not Norma Rae). For example, the government has forced Foxconn, the lying, reporter-intimidating, iPod manufacturing, sweatshop behemoth, to establish an ACFTU branch because of its numerous errors.

But what will it mean to establish these branches? What will they really do? As a punishment, the opening of an ACFTU branch probably mostly just means added bureaucracy for company managers, more Communist Party interference, more people to pay, etc.

Apparently, Hu Jintao is behind this push (see the China Labour Bulletin article). Where he ultimately wants to take this is an open question.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Quote from Wen Jiabao on elections

Premier Wen Jiabao made the following comment on Tuesday according to a Reuters Article:

"We are confident that when the people are capable of running a village through direct election, they will later be able to run a township, then a county and a province, true to the principle that our country is run by the people."

He made almost the exact same comments last year before a China-EU summit, when he said of village elections, "If the Chinese people can manage a village, I believe in several years they can manage a township" (see the Asia Times article China Looks to Democracy to Cure Its Ills).

Who are these remarks directed at? And what exactly does it commit China to?

On the James Traub piece

A few thoughts on the James Traub piece, The World According to China in this past weekend's New York Times Magazine:

I share Traub's worries about China's stance in regards to Darfur and in regards to many such human rights crises generally. In particular, I am worried that China will push the UN in a technocratic, passionless direction at a time when big vision is more needed than ever.

But Traub's piece is disappointingly shallow.

First, he is wrong to dismiss altogether China's emphasis on "collective rights" over individual rights. The way he writes it, this is entirely a ploy on the P.R.C.'s part to avoid responsibility for its own abuses and the abuses of its new friends in Africa and elsewhere.

But regardless of China's aims, isn't the debate over different forms of "rights" a legitimate debate?

There is a lively and very worthwhile discussion on this subject in the human rights community that Traub either is ignorant of or ignores for the sake of simplifying his point--a pity.

Traub similarly writes off "sovereignty" as an outdated concept and a fig leaf for despots, without (and this is strange from someone presumably so familiar with the UN) any sense of how deeply this concept undergirds international law and, in China's case, how much respect for different countries' sovereignty can be an IDEAL, not just a tactic.

Traub comes off not unlike those who would dismiss talk of "freedom" and "democracy" just because the Bush administration has given these terms a bad name.

More generally, Traub assumes--often without evidence--that China has no vision for the world (the P.R.C. has, for example, pushed a trade regime much fairer to the developing world than that advocated by the U.S.--self interest, yes, but a vision nonetheless and a good one at that).

Meanwhile, he naiively works on the assumption that the U.S. and its allies are forever thinking of ways of improving humanity's conditions, always taking on the big issues because it's the right thing to do, even if other member nations--especially the developing world nations, in Traub's view, don't know what's best for them.

In fact, as any American conservative will proudly acknowledge, the U.S. is actively blocking--along with China--many meaningful reforms to the UN Human Rights Council and has gone to absurd lengths to punish countries that support the International Criminal Court (and has blocked progress on landmines, biological weapons, and the rights of children, to name a few other issues).

Of course, the U.S. has contributed much to the UN system over the years--and can, after all, be credited in large part for the UN's creation. But surely if Traub is so skeptical of China's role, he could shine the same critical light on the United States or not, at least, set it up as the light to China's dark.

Traub paints an interesting portrait of Ambassador Wang Guangyu as a confident, sophisticated diplomat. However, why this should be such a surprise, I don't know--has Traub never heard of Zhou Enlai? Or Deng Xiaoping, for that matter?

What could have been a revealing look at China's emerging world role--good and bad--is, in Traub's hands, a tired, ideological rant.

He says that he is the first journalist to have been granted such access to Ambassador Wang. Hopefully, for the sake of Western readers, he won't be the last.

(Photo from NY Times)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Migrant workers, east and west

There is an excellent article in this month's issue of Mother Jones by Charles Bowden on the passage of illegal immigrants into the United States--the best I've read, but then I'm no expert on the topic (unfortunately, you'll have to buy the magazine at new stands, as it's not available online).

Bowden captures the sheer scale of the immigration and its toll on immigrants through a series of vignettes--huge dumps of clothes and backpacks at spots in the desert where migrants change into "American" attire given them by coyotes, the dangerous train-hopping of Central American migrants on their way to Mexico and then the U.S., the crime-ridden Mexican border towns that send dozens of trucks to the border daily, and the (strangely human and sympathetic in his account) ranks of Minutemen fanatics who wait at the border, binoculars and weapons in hand.

Reading the article I couldn't help but think back to the situation of China's migrant workers.

Of course, the issues are quite different: the plight of China's migrants is made all the more cruel by the fact that they are, after all Chinese citizens; the Mexican and Central American migrants face a hostility from ordinary citizens in the United States that dwarfs that faced by their Chinese counterparts (although police brutality is something they must endure in common); and the cultural tangles each group finds itself wrapped up in are, of course, incomparable.

Nonetheless, it seems like if there was ever a rights issue where Americans and Chinese could sit as equals without any talking-down or defensiveness or high-flying ideology on either side, the rights of migrant workers would be it.

Monday, August 28, 2006

On Chen Guangcheng

It seems that when local governments in China find themselves in a bind of their own making--through corruption, abuse of power, etc.-- they intentionally push things to the point of crisis, hoping that Beijing will privilige "stability" over the rule of law.

In Chen's case , the bulletproof jacket wearing-official Huang Jin'gao's case and the Taishi Village recall campaign , the central government gave some kind of nod early on--a People's Daily editorial, say--to grassroots rights activists. Then the village or township government, faced with investigations and sackings from Beijing and feeling that they had nothing to lose, escalated the local problem into a fullblown "incident."

When an "incident" rears its head, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao tend to step back and allow the village despots, cops and hired thugs to straighten things up. They forgive the original official infraction that gave rise to the "incident", believing that pursuing justice will only encourage more instability. And they put off "rule of law" until another day.

Friday, August 25, 2006

New York neighborhoods

Once again I've been hit by how much (at least middle class) New York residents define themselves by "good" and "bad" neighborhoods and neighborhoods that have some "good parts" or are "getting better" and neighborhoods that are "changing" or "used to be nice" or "are gentrifying" or are "mostly black, some Dominicans" or "traditionally Puerto Rican but nice", etc., etc. More than any other city I've lived in, people here feel free to keep a running commentary going in the most open, frank terms on race and class and space.

NYC is refreshingly diverse ethnically and is the rare city where working people and Wall Street execs have at least equal claims on the its identity (what would New York be without Deli owners or cab drivers?). The city is filled with some of the most democratic spaces in America, where people of all backgrounds mix and mingle--Central Park, the subway system, etc.

Yet people seem all the more separate for that openness.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Development toward... ?

I just returned from a summer spent studying in Beijing. It was a wonderful experience, a chance to reconnect with a place and people I love.

However, I found that the city had changed a lot since the last time I spent any real time there (the winter and spring of 2001).

Not only are Beijing's historic hutongs targets for destruction; so too are its dull, tile and cement apartment complexes of the 1980s and 1990s. Styles are eating styles almost as fast as new ones can be generated.

If Marx were alive, he would find a new applicability for his oft-quoted description of changing productive relations: "All fixed, fast-frozen relationships . . . are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air."

Beijing is in a hubbub that is unlikely to subside until after 2008, if then.

Development in terms of better sewage systems, more orderly roads, bigger hospitals, and, well, architecture that is pleasing to the eye is a good thing. But all this bustle, all these tons of earth moved and sheets of glass hung, all the labor of all Beijing's migrant workers, is directed at one group: the upper middle class and the very, very rich. Small shop owners, workers and taxi drivers are being pushed out beyond the outer ring roads of the city; the bright lights and trendily exposed steel girders rising up everywhere are not for them.

Meanwhile, as the Western and Chinese media and internet forums have noted, places with stories and unique forms of community life are disappearing.

Nor, generally, is some new "look" forming, some distinctively "Beijing" way of living it large. The West, especially the United States of shopping malls and strip malls appears to be the model (though some areas of Beijing, it should be noted, have been more adventurous--the eerily beautiful SOHO development near Dawanglu, for example). Many people I spoke to put things in terms of reaching some plateau, of being--some day--just like New York City (another city that is destroying much of its working class life in favor of yuppie glitz).

Looking at the old propaganda posters from the 1960s and 1970s for sale to tourists, I was reminded how China once viewed itself as a part of another trajectory---that of the "Third World" and its struggles for liberation. Where photographs of European or American business people now look down from billboards advertising luxury condominiums, silkscreened, flatly colored and boldly outlined, muscular Africans, Middle Easterners and Asians once joined arms to smash the United States and Soviet Union or to wave the Chairman's collected writings.

It is perhaps unwise to romanticize Maoist anti-imperialism, or even the calm, heartfelt solidarity of Zhou Enlai and the expressions of brotherhood shown at the Bandung Conference. In addition to the cruelty of some the causes China backed in those days---Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, for one---many of the country's foreign policy flourishes were motivated more by old-school realpolitik than high ideals and, when push came to shove, naked interests won out over principle.

Nonetheless, when I see rapidly developing Brazil, India and China each pursuing their own version of the "American Dream" (and America itself driving the dream off a cliff) I worry that a chance at something greater has been lost.