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)