Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bandung and Bali

Over half a century ago, in April 1955, Indonesia hosted the Bandung Conference or the “Asian-African Conference” (or “African-Asian Conference”). In a statement implicitly critical of both the United States and the Soviet Union, the attendees—who represented twenty-nine countries and more than half the world’s population—condemned “colonialism in all of its manifestations.”

Beyond its lofty principles, the conference is remembered for the friendship on display between two attendees in particular, China’s Zhou Enlai and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, leaders that would be divided by deepening suspicion and a border war in the years ahead.

Reports from the recently concluded Bali conference on global warming had echoes of Bandung, as when Kevin Conrad, the delegate from Papua New Guinea spoke:

“We seek your leadership,” he said referring to the United States. “But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please, get out of the way.”

Or comments by Kapil Sibal the Indian Minister of Science and Technology:

"Those who want to remain on the periphery of the protocol but want to ask developing countries to bear the burden. That is against the spirit of the multilateral agreement and not acceptable.''

Or, finally, at the end of the conference:

Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead delegate at the conference, took the floor and welcomed on the United States “onto this bus.” But he quickly added: “The United States is not in the driver’s seat.”

The presence of wealthy European and North American states alongside developing world countries (“Third World” having disappeared as a potent political term and even become somewhat un-pc since Zhou and Nehru’s generation) made Bali different. The old dividing lines have clearly blurred—for better or worse.

But that sense from the old Bandung conference that something big is at stake (global warming being undeniably "big") and that differences of rich and poor matter, that we're not all in the same boat, not yet... that was there again.

[Photos courtesy of NY Times and Memo]

Friday, December 07, 2007

More on class struggle in airline seating

The New York Times agrees with me about the brutal class system aboard airplanes:

It’s that insubstantial curtain that is drawn after we reach altitude, the one that pretends to protect decadent first-class activities — it cannot be lap-dancing, orgies or the tango — from the purportedly covetous eyes of the rest of us. What that curtain really does, its sole purpose, believe me, is to keep us from using the toilet up there.


To be blunt, I now hate those people in first class and whatever system deposits them there. Hi, Karl Marx, did you say class system? Sometimes, I imagine myself as Pirate Jenny in “The Threepenny Opera”: kill them now, or later?

In truth, when the revolution comes in an airline cabin, it will be a petit bourgeois revolution. The organization World Development Movement, in making an argument for a tax on aviation to pay for poverty relief, notes:

Flying is an activity dominated primarily by the rich. The richest 18 per cent of the UK population are responsible for 54 per cent of flights, whilst the poorest 18 per cent are responsible for just 5 per cent. The average salary of passengers at UK airports is £48,000.

So, when the first class sections are dismantled and distributed evenly, cushion by cushion, martini by martini, personal DVD player by personal DVD player, it will only be one step on the way. It will be the Sun Yatsen to the Mao Zedong!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Collective bargaining under new law

One little wrinkle in China’s new Labor Contract Law:

Whereas in the past workers could engage in collective bargaining through their own chosen representatives if there was no ACFTU branch in their workplace (according to the Labor Law and Regulations on Collective Contracts), they may now (only?) do so “under the guidance of the next-higher level union.” China Labour Bulletin has more details in its new report available here.

Of course, in practice the ACFTU has always tended to intervene anyway. So, is this really a step backward? Or something positive that will push the ACFTU to engage in more collective bargaining? We’ll have to see how it’s implemented…

Also, there's more great coverage from Global Labor Strategies and Beijing Newspeak on the law.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The U.S. on Pakistan = India and China on Burma

General Musharraf has tear-gassed, beaten and arrested his country's ordinary citizens and civil society. The Supreme Court has been replaced. Opposition party leaders have been silenced (though Bhutto has been left alone and may, finally--just maybe--taking a real stand that puts her outside her carefully managed strategies within strategies). Needless to say, labor activists have not been spared.

Khalid Mahmood of the Labour Education Foundation was arrested (and later released), as was Nisar Shah of the Labour Party. Other arrests included the convener of the Pearl Continental Hotel Workers Solidarity Committee, Liaqat Ali Sahi, and two members of the Solidarity Committee, G. Fareed Awan, Assistant General Secretary of the All-Pakistan Trade Unions Federation (APTUF) and Ayub Qureshi, Information Secretary of the Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF) (see the IUF report). Activists belonging to the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum narrowly escaped arrest in Karachi; workers helped them evade police. Mohammad Ashiq Bhutta, Information Secretary of the National Federation of Food, Beverages and Tobacco Workers, was arrested and later released.

And this is for the war on terror? As Asma Jangahir of the Pakistan Commission for Human Rights stated: "Those he has arrested are progressive, secular minded people while the terrorists are offered negotiations and ceasefires."

More specifically, if Musharraf returns with a coalition of religious parties to hold him in power after all this, it will certainly seem like a cruel joke.

Pakistanis have struggled for decades for real democracy and social justice, through divisions and dictators. And they have voted for religious extremists in lower percentages than Americans have.

Now, an incredible consensus seems to be forming between workers and landless farmers and their advocates, liberals in the form of lawyers and human rights organizations, stodgy party activists, and thousands of citizens who don't fit any specific category. The idea of a Pakistan that trusts itself, that will make its courts matter, that wants to begin again without the military, or without such a domineering military, is taking hold.

Or it is trying to take hold, amid all the confusion and bitterness of what is essentially martial law.

And yet, the U.S. is worried--not so much about the broken skulls and packed prisons, but about that very energy I just described. From The New York Times:

Among Western diplomats, there is rising concern that General Musharraf’s declaration is also damaging the standing of the Pakistani Army as an institution, which has long been seen as the force holding the country together.

“It’s the concern about how the military retains its position as an institution of national respect,” said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “These kinds of things can be damaging to the institution, the respect for the institution and also the morale.”

The "standing of the Pakistani Army"... we're crying for THEM at a time like this?

This is not because American politicians (or "Western diplomats" generally) are so reactionary that the idea of people power makes them scurry into dark places and plot to stab the masses in the back. It's just that they have no sense of how to even talk to the Pakistan people if they had to. Sure, everyone wants democracy, but the military is an old buddy and we just, y'know, feel comfortable around it.

It's a little like the good ol' boy diplomacy of the U.S. in Central America during the Cold War. I'm sure some in the State Department or CIA genuinely wanted fair elections in El Salvador. But if the elections had to be held amid massacres and intimidation, well, at least we could keep our dinners with the elite down there.

And, when things settled down, bones of El Mozote and those murdered nuns largely forgotten, and the rebels too worn out to keep up their dreams, we could teach the "Salvador Option" to young commanders in Iraq.

I'm not saying dash it all to hell. Sure, keep your ties with generals if need be. But for heaven's sakes don't make it be about them. Make it be about the country.

Right now, U.S. rhetoric is sounding a lot closer to China and India's statements on Burma than anything else.

Chinese diaspora photographers at Q Art Space

For those in New York City, there's a great photography show going on at Q Art Space entitled "Intimate Distance." From the its press release:

...a photography exhibition featuring nearly fifty photographs by nine photographers of the Chinese diaspora in the United States. Young, well-traveled, globally-minded, confident and eloquent… these photographers are distinct from artists of the Social Realism, Kitsch and Pop generations.

The exhibit is up from November 8-17. For more information, visit the site: Q Art Space.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Coal deaths down by 50 percent? No.

From China's State Administration of Work and Safety:

Deaths in China's coal mines, the scene of some of the worst industrial carnage, fell from 4.94 per million tons of coal mined in 2002, before the safety law was adopted, to 2.04 last year.

...which begs the question: how much did the production of coal go up between 2002 and last year? The number of deaths in total has not fallen a whole lot.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Hong Kong gangsters and doing what's right

What is so attractive about Hong Kong gangster movies? Obviously, the tough guy stuff has its attractions--and the ballet-like battles in John Woo and Johnny To movies are incredible. But what sets these stories apart from action flicks is the acknowledgment of choices.

Having a criminal at the center of a film forces a certain degree of reflection. If he is to seem at all accessible to viewers, he (and the character is almost always a he) has to acknowledge the pain he causes others by his actions. And if we are to go a step further and actually admire him, the criminal must call on a host of rather old values, values familiar to us from fairy tales, old books with brutal, awkward senses of morality, and our own lives--loyalty, family, honor, redemption.

In crime stories generally, but Hong Kong ones in particular, death takes on a gravity that is almost altogether absent from your typical Hollywood blockbuster.

I've sometimes come out of summer shoot-em-ups--even the ironic stuff of Tarantino and Rodriguez--with a nagging sickness in my stomache. I don't mean to seem holier-than-thou, but I've often felt guilty watching "bad guys" shot down by the dozens without a moment to think about the violence that has just occured. Was that evil henchman really evil?

Chow Yun Fat's characters aren't so certain they are right. In fact, they usually know they are wrong and are searching for some decency to pull them out of the rut they're in--a woman to save, an estranged brother who's a cop, a friend trying to go clean, etc. They play songs on the saxaphone for each of their victims ("The Killer") or make paper cranes for the dead ("Hard Boiled"). And they have hang-dog, worn looks on their faces.

Sometimes, I think American politics could do with a touch of the tragic, a touch of Chow Yun Fat.

A history professor when I was an undergraduate mused that Europeans approach rulers with a history of hundreds of years of lousy kings in mind and therefore have less of a need to airbrush history. The same might be said for China.

America's idealism and simple storylines have sometimes been just what the world is craving. But not now. What is needed is an America that can feel the weight of an awful mistake, of the need to atone, that will not just write off every horror as a "learning experience." It needs to see itself more as a sinner trying to make things right.

Such an America wouldn't allow its president to blanket waterboarding with the lie "America doesn't torture." And such an America would understand the world a bit better.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Reform on the front page

One of China’s most daring papers and the country’s boring, English-language propaganda sheet agree: the People’s Republic will finally begin to open its government.

Or, as Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily) says in its headline, “Expand People’s Democracy, Build Ecological Civilization.” Or as China Daily meanwhile reports, “Political reform ‘will be pursued.’”

Neither explains what any of this means, which is understandable, as we don’t have much to go on but Hu Jintao’s report at the opening of the 17th Party Congress, which was heavy on carefully chosen phrases and a bit sparse on details.

And both papers could have different reasons for the same conclusion.

Nanfang Dushi Bao may be continuing a proud tradition of taking leaders at their words when those words are welcome and then trumpeting those words as loudly as possible in the hope that maybe, just maybe those words—and not other official pronouncements—will come true (O'Brien and Li have called this "rightful resistance" in other contexts). China Daily might just be trying to make foreigners like me happy.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Two, Three, Many Burmas

With the protests in Burma slowed--perhaps only temporarily--I thought I'd post a few updates on the situation:

I wrote earlier wondering what the protests would mean for China. A visit to Boxun's international news page shows Burma, Burma and Burma (and yes, people in China do read Boxun). John Kennedy has a nice translation in Global Voices of Chinese blog posts in support of the protesters. There are plenty of Chinese e-mail calls to action floating around, some of which I've received.

H.H. the Dalai Lama came out in support of the monks early on in clear terms. Archbishop Desmond Tutu just spoke out forcefully, too, linking the repression to the Beijing Games. There were big protests in Japan (who lost a reporter to the repression) and, of course, the Southeast Asian nations neighboring Burma.

The Burmese protests are casting an even wider net, though. Pakistan's civil society was dealt another beating--and tear gassing--the other day when lawyers, political activists (such as Fariq Tarooq, head of the Labor Party of Pakistan) and journalists were brutally attacked by riot police right outside the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Writing in The News, Ayesha Tammy Haq has the following to say:

There are two countries in this world ruled by military dictators, Pakistan and Myanmar, formerly Burma. Both have seen peaceful protests turn violent and currently both are in the news with a new series of protests and resultant police brutality. In Myanmar the monks are out in their orange and rust robes while Pakistan is a sea of black coats. Fortunately for Myanmar, it has in Aung San Suu Kyi a political leader in residence with commitment and vision. We in Pakistan are not as fortunate. Our political leaders, tainted by scandals involving financial malfeasance and stories of power-sharing deals with the very people who carry out these and other excesses, lack moral authority.

Sadly, Haq adds:

While the western powers are willing to condemn the brutality in Myanmar they are not so quick to do so in Pakistan. Burma's military junta is not a part in the so-called war against terror and Al Qaeda is not growing like a fungus in the Shan Mountains.

We can and should demand that Bush act in a more even-handed manner. Certainly, when Israeli troops recently opened fire at a crowd of Palestinians waiting at the Erez crossing in Gaza, wounding a fourteen year old, Bush could have said something. He might also have spoken out about Egypt's recent roundups of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Or come out strongly about the Philippines' grisly record of 33 murdered trade unionists last year.

But the obvious hollowness of the Burmese leaders' recent claim--that criticism of them amounts to neo-colonialism--only serves to emphasize that events in Burma have moved beyond Bush and the support-counter-reaction-support that he inspires. The situation is bigger than him. And it may even be the case in Rangoon, in this one instance, that he can't mess things up.

There might be a wonderful solidarity in the works.

Benedict Anderson describes how novels gave eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century people a sense of nation, the idea of several characters, several lives being lived across a "single" culture in any given instant.

Reading about the beginning of the twentieth century I've often been struck by how people then seem to have felt that they were living something else, even bigger than the nations written of by Anderson, how they identified with struggles in Italy, Russia, Spain, China, etc. The enduring image in my mind (from, admittedly, the novel "Ragtime") is of U.S. workers packing a union hall to raise money for Mexican revolutionaries.

That's all nostalgia on my part--and nostalgia for something before my time, to boot!--but the sympathy that these Burmese protests have ignited abroad is real. I hope it shows the way to a truer movement for democracy--and social justice, too--than has been possible these past nigh-on-eight years.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

China and Burma and change

The protests in Burma have reached a critical phase in which the brittle hope of marching monks and ordinary citizens is meeting the Burmese military regime’s first acts of violence. With the United Nations holding its annual summit in New York, attention has naturally focused on the country’s closest friends: India, Russia and China. Sadly, India and Russia have so far been spared the brunt of the world’s indignation, but the pressure that China has received is nonetheless deserved.

The PRC’s ties with Burma go back long before “reform and opening,” despite Burma’s dogged anti-communism (although ties between the countries were strained during the Cultural Revolution, when ethnic Chinese radicals spooked Burmese authorities). As is often noted, China has extensive energy interests in the country (as have Western companies like Unocal). A need to stem the flow of drugs from south of its borders has also drawn Beijing into Burmese politics. So too has the occasional need to burnish China's credentials as a neutral power, saintly uninterested in others' internal affairs.

Editorials, political speeches and protests have demanded a Chinese response to repression of the protests. Only China has any sway in Rangoon! C'mon China, say something!

And China is responding, in its own meandering way. There was China’s rejection of sanctions against Burma today, of course, but also words by Chinese officials regarding “stability” and “reconciliation” and Burma’s need to find its own path to democracy—frustratingly vague words, but hardly supportive of the junta. Why?

There seems to be an impression among some journalists that Beijing is a member of some great, criminal brotherhood of authoritarian states, something like the “Sinister Six” of Spiderman lore or the cackling band of villains in the 1960s Batman TV series. Any threat to any authoritarian state anywhere is viewed as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party, regardless of the context. The story goes something like this: “China, facing human rights issues at home, would surely not want this or that to happen to such and such awful government…”

In truth, China seems as fine with authoritarian North Korea as it is with liberal South Korea, with a clamped-down, nationalistic Russia as it is with a sleepily generous EU, and, increasingly at least, as comfortable with a Pakistan under occasional military rule as a steadfastly, if unevenly, democratic India. And it goes without saying that ideology in its "left" and "right" sense plays little role in Beijing's calculations.

Reasons for China's support for Burma and for any pressure it has put on the junta--or will put on it--must be found elsewhere.

Isabel Hinton has a great piece in The Guardian entitled “China Does Not Want Another Tiananmen By Proxy” whose title makes a pretty forceful argument by itself.

David Lague writes in the International Herald Tribune about how Beijing has quietly made ties with the Burmese opposition:

…there is evidence that China has been hedging its bets on political developments in Myanmar for some years.
Lintner, the Thailand-based analyst, said Beijing maintained unofficial contacts with exiled Myanmar opposition groups in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries in a bid to minimize their antagonism and to improve its understanding of political developments.

He said Beijing also tolerated the presence of these groups in Ruili, on the border with Myanmar in Yunnan Province, where some maintain unofficial offices.

Naturally, there is also the question of whether China can do anything at all, whether anyone--China, India, Russia, the UN, ASEAN, anyone--has any real influence in Rangoon (see, for example, the rather dry, know-it-all, “let’s hear from a seasoned expat” argument in Foreign Policy).

Another question, though, not touched on much (other than in the caricatured, Sinister Six form) is what exactly the fall of the Burmese junta would mean for China or for other authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes in the region, such as Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand. What would it mean for Tibet?

Beyond wild hopes of revolution in these places--which it will sadly probably take more than a Burmese uprising to stir--what will it really mean for the spirit of people? The images we see of monks walking through the rain, having their feet bandaged by supportive city residents, and being beaten by soldiers strike a chord of pure sympathy that seems to have been buried, quite wrongly, with the perceived mush of the post-Cold War era (as if the Cold War wasn't a mush, too, a more horrible one).

No doubt there are complexities to Burma's own politics that someone like me, who doesn't really know more than what the papers have reported, could benefit from understanding. But as a symbol for the rest of the world, what is happening there now is powerful. We'll see what it means for China to engage with another country at a moment like this---for whatever reason China engages and with whatever effect it ends up having.

But in the meantime, it wouldn't hurt to hope.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


The outrage that has been directed at Chinese mine bosses and authorities in Shandong is incredible to watch (see the BBC video on Youtube). But it is even more incredible when contrasted with the bewilderment of people in Huntington, Utah, who seem unsure whether to buy the words of Crandall Canyon mine co-owner Bob Murray or the United Mine Workers---and seem, understandably, just weary above all else.

Time and again, there seems to be LESS tolerance for elites misbehaving in China than there is in the U.S. This is, of course, not what one would expect of an authoritarian country where, it is assumed by outsiders, the government exists only because people never do anything about it and are scared as lambs.

Maybe it's the incredible power of American spin to place seeds of doubt in even the most commonsense reaction to events that makes us tired and confused. The U.S. media is cowed by press secretaries and dithers over torture or wire taps or unsafe mines--"Was something wrong REALLY done? Or do we just not understand the complexity of the issue?"

Or perhaps the boldness with which China's revolutionaries once pledged themselves to "serve the people" still resonates back over the ages, casting into sharp relief today's dull, selfish bureaucrats and spurring Chinese to rally against polluting factories, refuse to leave condemned homes to make way for shopping centers, fight with thugs for fields, and smash every piece of glass in the mine company's office.

Or maybe there is simply a stronger tradition of challenging authority---really spitting on it and dragging it through the streets--- in China than in the States, absurd as this may sound to some. And the Chinese government is lucky to have stayed on top of the wave as long as it has.

At any rate, the facts are there, brutal in both countries, in both mines.

No word yet on 181 miners in China who were trapped in a flooded mine several days ago; the government's most recent statement suggests they were victims of a "natural distaster." Meanwhile, Boss Murray is about to give up on recovering the miners in Utah or even their bodies. Documents obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune show the risks that his mine took before the tragedy:

Records of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) show that, after Murray acquired a 50 percent ownership in the mine on Aug. 9, 2006, his company repeatedly petitioned the agency to allow coal to be extracted from the north and south barriers - thick walls of coal that run on both sides of the main tunnels and help hold up the mine.

That stands in stark contrast to statements Murray made Monday asserting that his company's mine plan, and that of the previous owner, were one and the same.

So, what should we do?

[The above photos are from China Digital Times and Fox News].

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


New York-based China Labor Watch (CLW) has hit toy companies hard with a new report on factories in the Pearl River Delta. With attention on Chinese product safety, the report landed on CNN, Reuters, The New York Times, and Bloomberg.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Reforms---market and otherwise

Like my mixed feelings about the Clinton wing of the Democrats at home (Mr. or Mrs. Clinton), I never know quite what to make of the market reformists in China, a country where the distinction between "liberal" and "left" is as clear as day and night.

Hu Shuli has a piece in Caijing magazine, in which he complains, in typical market reformist fashion, that people who think China has become too imbalanced or worry about further marketization leading to social instability are missing the forest for the trees.

He dismisses those who "suggest solving all our social problems once and for all, simply by expanding China’s social welfare system," but then hedges by saying that "current projects that should continue include efforts to establish a strong social-security system."

Then he slips in a little gamble:

Current efforts to deepen reforms of the economic system face many challenges. Therefore, it is high time that we continued on political system reform actively and safely. The core goal for political-system reform is to accelerate democratic change and establish a modern, socialist country with democracy and a full-fledged legal system.

Efforts to reform the political system and other arenas should proceed shoulder-to-shoulder.

A friend of mine said that China will definitely begin democratic reforms before too long; the only question is who will come out on top: liberals or the left. His words had an ominous ring to it, a little like Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads in Iraq gearing up for the show-down that will come when America leaves.

But, really, where should workers and farmers stand? How much should they cooperate with market reformers who, like Hu Shuli, also advocate a common goal, political reform?

There isn't a ton of history to rely on here. The United Front---during the revolution and immediate post-revolution years---managed to draw on a range of energies for reconstruction, but didn't give liberals much of a real voice. The liberal Tiananmen students, on the other hand, didn't give farmers and workers an equal stage.

And Clinton II isn't likely to give labor any important seat at the table.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Labor Contract Law and lay-offs

As the implementation of the recently-passed Labor Contract Law nears, companies are firing older workers before management is forced to take on workers who have worked for at least 10 years continuously (or have signed fixed-term contracts twice) as permanent employees.

A July 15 issue of the Guangdong paper "Yangcheng Evening News" has a report by Wang Xiaoyun entitled "'The Labor Contract Law' Made Me Lose My Bowl of Food." It tells the story of 50 year old worker Hua Yi, who was employed at a plant since 1996---until recently, when she was told there wasn't enough work for her. New workers, though, were hired in Hua's place.

Another worker, A Yu, put in 21 years at a factory only to be informed that her work was unsatisfactory and fired. She was left to rely on her husband's 600 RMB per month salary to take care of aging parents and a daughter not yet four years old.

If enterprises' worries are a sign that the law may be better enforced than previous regulations, then these firings, while painful, should give some bitter hope to the Pearl River Delta's proletariat.

But managers and workers both know that much depends on how the national law is translated into local law, that things are still in flux. We can only wait until the beginning of 2008. But the wait will be rough.

Airlines and class struggle

After a spell of travel, I have come to believe that the division of airplane seating into (at least) two classes, "economy" and "business", may be the best possible illustration of the inefficiency of inequality.

A few giant seats---roughly 20+ per plane---take up so much space that the remaining 100+ passengers are forced into conditions best compared to a drawing of medieval prisons that I had in a picture book about knights as a child. While two people serve an intermittent, sputtering stream of "business" travelers at the check-in counter, only three people serve an "economy" line stretching back 100-200-300-more frustrated customers.

"Business" is the reserve of "captains of industry" (a phrase borrowed from a European friend of mine). The rest of us, factors of production, belong to the "economy" as a whole.

No doubt, the choice of luxury seating---and thereby a binary airplane, a world of middle class-less travel---makes sense profit-wise, just like sky boxes at sports stadiums.

But what of the rising hopelessness of the ordinary passengers, the angry "ghost" passing through airports like the spirit of Communism described by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto? Shouldn't the companies placate us with some concessions, try to buy us off like Henry Ford did?

Monday, June 25, 2007


More on the government-business nexus in China: David Barboza has a great piece on being held hostage by a toy factory boss, while police waited helplessly outside and local officials shuttled back and forth trying to arrive at a negotiated settlement for his release (see "My Time as a Hostage, and I’m a Business Reporter"). Then, there's the whole story of Yang Shukuan, the Tangshan City chairman of the board of the "Huayun Group," CPPCC member and crime boss, who was found to have "four armored vehicles, thirty eight guns, more than ten thousand bullets, and twelve tear gas grenades" and to have driven around the city's streets, sometimes shooting at policmen----all with utter impunity, at least until recently (see China Digital Times ).

It's a different world for human rights activists to confront than the old Soviet boogeyman or even the right-wing, free market dictatorships of Latin America.

And, in fairness, it's not such a different world from that prevailing in, well, much of the developing world, whether the country concerned is labeled "democratic" or "authoritarian."

In fact, stories like Yang Shukuan's--or the stories of countless small-town big shots in India, Pakistan or elsewhere--makes a mess of both of the above categories, with its fractured authority and a democracy that, persistently, erupts in bursts in the midst of all the chaos, a democracy that may be all the stronger for the inflexibility of the state.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


At a recent symposium on China at Columbia University--and again in a debate in Foreign Policy magazine with James Mann--scholar David Lampton argued that critics of China's human rights policies should find mild ways of engaging the Chinese government. His example of such engagement was the well-worn path of "legal reform."

A few other, more refreshing examples have cropped up. Elaine Chao, the head of the U.S. Department of Labor, unusually put forward a good idea: working with China to build a strong pension system and improve workplace safety (link). As the Change to Win delegation of trade unionists travels through China on what is the inaugural visit to the country for the Teamsters (but not SEIU, whose head has been before), other ideas are coming forward. As usual, the blog Global Labor Strategies offers good advice:

"It is not up to U.S. unions to decide what kind of labor organization China should have – that is up to Chinese workers. Some will no doubt struggle to establish independent organizations; others will “bore from within” in the official union structure. U.S. trade unionists need neither to endorse nor to shun either the official union or independent efforts. They can relate to both, supporting worker-friendly initiatives like the draft contract labor law while steadfastly maintaining the basic right of all workers to unions and leaders of their own choosing. And they can demonstrate a commitment to that principle in practice by pressuring U.S.-based corporations to offer those rights to their workers in China" (link).

This advice is good outside of labor. We don't need to limit ourselves to the kind of engagement Lampton praises--traditional human rights activism is also important. But there's no need to take engagement off the table, either.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Pet food, motorcycles, etc.

The recent food and drug scandals in China--the deadly pet food that has made cable news networks and the fake medications investigated by the NY Times--follow a horrible fake birth formula episode not too long ago.

Less tragic by far is the fake "Suzuki" motorcycle I rode in Shanxi. I was told that there are whole factories in Datong churning out machines like it.

Intellectual property rights is one thing. I still have a hard time believing that Microsoft or Hollywood are LOSING money from pirating--$150 computer programs anyone? Going once... going twice... going... If China can rip off a bit of technology from its foreign investors, too, that's a good thing---a small gift in return for an exploited labor force. Plenty of countries (including the United States) have benefited from others' inventions, besides.

I wouldn't have my old motorcyle any other way.

But these food scandals and drug scandals are different. They reveal a country unable to regulate itself in even the most basic way.

Pei Minxin's idea of China being paralyzed by rent-seeking at every level is compelling. According to Pei, the state feels it has to allow all this in order to ensure that everyone with any power is supportive and with the program. But there seems to be something else at work here, too.

There's a failure to come to grips with what kind of animal a business or corporation really is. From being condemned as parasites, these entities have been raised to the level of heroes.

And it's not just in China. I remember traveling through India and seeing stacks of books by smug American CEOs giving advice about this and that.

China IS beginning to crack down on wild businesses, it seems, dispatching Wu Yi a while ago to head up an effort against bad drugs. But as China and India and Brazil and others rise on the world stage, I hope they will articulate fresh values, not just recycle the First World's first industrial revolution.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Finally, a touch of justice

From The Guardian's Jonathan Watts:

"A Chinese court has jailed a colliery owner for life in an unprecedented move to improve safety standards in the world's deadliest coal industry.

Wang Jianjun is the first Chinese mine owner to get such a heavy sentence after he was found guilty of covering up an accident which killed 21 people..."

This Wang fellow may well be wonderful with his kids, have a good sense of humor, cook good food, etc. But he's a sociopath:

"Instead of calling the rescue services, Wang tried to cover up the accident. He cut the cables of the pit shaft, and told inspectors the mine was closed. He ordered other mine workers to stay home and sent victims' families to a neighbouring province, promising them hush money if they kept quiet. His actions delayed rescue work by 44 hours, the Xinhua news agency reported, and condemned the men to death."

The official Xinhua report on the sentence (矿难责任人首次被判无期) quotes a minister of the prison system who says that this "shows the government and Party are working hard to ensure safe production." That may well be true at the national level. But in this case, as in others, the local government colluded with the mine boss.

The minister is certainly right, though, in another of his statements: "This [sentence] sends a good signal to society."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Support the Saigon Grill Strike

Come learn more about the Saigon Grill boycott and how you can
fight for workers' rights!
Monday, April 23rd @ 8 pm
Hamilton 517
Columbia University

You've heard about the long hours, poor wages, and stolen tips,
sweatshop conditions and illegal lockouts endured by the workers of
Saigon Grill. Learn about what you can do to fight for better
working conditions and fair pay with the employees of the Saigon
Grill and the Chinese Staff & Workers' Association (CSWA).

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Losheng Sanatorium

(Above: Losheng Sanatorium after the government's plans to reduce it to 41 percent of its present size--after already reducing it significantly).

Why does it matter that the Taipei government wants to wreck an old leper's asylum (or much of it) to make way for mass transit? Why has it ignited such a storm online?

I must admit, at first I couldn't quite figure out myself. I still don't entirely get it, but I now see a reason that--at least--makes sense to me:

It matters because you have to fight for what's good in what's old---right up until history moves past you.

It's like Liu Bei in the "Three Kingdoms." You can't judge entirely whether change is good. You can only use the best of your judgment in the here and now. And fight. And you just might come out on top and history will change direction.

For more on the Losheng Sanatorium, see:

EastSouthWestNorth piece

English version of activists' case

The Losheng Petition can be found here:


Friday, April 06, 2007

Graphic Work: Imaging Today's Labor Movement

April 5 to April 30
Opening Reception
Thursday, April 12
6pm to 9pm

Gallery 1199
Open M-F: 9-5
310 W 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
For more information contact Zoeann Murphy:

The US labor movement has created some of the
most effective political graphics and images in
history. However, work and workers, along with the
labor movement are often depicted as experiences
of the American past: photographs of children in
factories in the early 1900s, paintings of historic
strikes and Rosie the Riveter. Now the labor
movement needs new images of the issues
confronting workers today. Graphic Work, curated
by Josh MacPhee and Zoeann Murphy is a collection
of 40 posters aimed at representing the new face of

Graphic Work is a project of the Workforce
Development Institute, the Bread & Roses Cultural
Project of 1199SEIU, and

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Hope in Nepal

Arguably one of the most hopeful stories in the last couple years has been the peace process in Nepal, which has pulled off the near-impossible: justice AND peace.

A corrupt, brutal monarch has been taken down a peg (and may lose his throne entirely), a disciplined and politically savvy leftist insurgency is integrating itself into mainstream decisionmaking, a tired parliamentary system with old windbags and distant parties is getting new life and meaning, and old issues of caste and privilige---the reasons behind the insurgency---are beginning to get the attention they deserve.

Now, if only the international environment holds...

The recent shortage of funding for the camps disarming Maoists was worrying. China and India's meddling is disturbing (but potentially beneficial if redirected). And the king may still be a wild card.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


From Egypt, we have this NY Times report on a protest by villagers threatened with eviction that is strikingly similar to stories from China:

"The Gurna standoff... illustrates the challenges facing an authoritarian government that for decades imposed its will on the people, keeping them poor but fed, underemployed but employed, but now seeks to adjust the social contract without sparking widespread unrest...."

"Political analysts say the dynamics here are similar to those all over the country as the government tries to transform a centrally controlled economy. In recent months thousands of workers in bloated state-owned factories have staged wildcat strikes, out of fear that privatization will take their jobs, or demanding pay raises."

While I appreciate that the reporter, Michael Slackman, sees in the old Egyptian system a "social contract", his article still misses something of the deeper sense of fairness that underwrit "bloated state-owned factories" in many systems, the sense of being in something together and of workers having a priviliged position in society.

This feeling will be hard to recapture, whatever efficiency gains privatization may yield.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Wen Jiabao on political reform--important?

I've been off the internet for a while, so I don't know if the foreign media have been making much of Premier Wen Jiabao's recent comments at the NPC / CPPCC meetings. Conversations with friends--who are usually given to cynicism about any and everything related to the CCP--have given me some hope that these comments have at least opened a space to which others can lay claim.

At any rate, at the risk of redundancy, here are some of my translations from the March 19 issue of "21st Century Business Herald" (Ershiyi shiji jingji baodao). The original was a paper copy, so no link I'm afraid. Direct quotations are marked by, naturally, quotation marks. All else is summary.

1. Premier Wen Jiabao, "when replying to a reporter's question, promised that the central government will push forward political reform, reduce the over-centralization of power, increase the people's oversight of government...."

2. According to Premier Wen, "socialist democracy" means "making the people be masters of their house, which requires ensuring that there be rights to democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic governance and democratic oversight, that is to say creating the conditions for the people to oversee and criticize their government..."

3. The paper also noted that Wen had said in November that creativity is important to any progress and that "there is a direct link between liberated thinking and creativity / innovation; liberated thinking is the cause, while innovation is the result."

Less impressively, the Premier also indulged in "online democracy" by replying to some of the "more than 100,000" questions put to him by netizens. Of course, this is a) a rather inefficient form of democracy and b) a form with little of the "cause and effect" he mentioned earlier---there is no guaranteed result to putting forward the questions, not even that Wen will read them. He can pick and choose.

These things, again, may or may not matter in and of themselves. Premier Wen Jiabao, like this whole administration, is quite media savvy. His comments on Tibet and Taiwan departed little from formula.

But Wen's words on political reform have the potential to restart a discussion that has been practically frozen in official speeches since Zhao Ziyang.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Uh, I meant intuiting the "will of the people..."

From China Digital Times:

When a reporter asked Minister Li about China's policy on Taiwan, Li answered: “All policies follow the will of the motherland and will of the people."

"Do you mean you want them to vote?" a female Taiwanese reporter asked.

Li Zhaoxing (laughing): "This question is a tricky one. The answer is No. No!"

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Mines and authority

A recent piece on Shanxi coal miners in Time by Simon Elegant and Zhang Jiachang hits the nail on the head with this remark on Wen Jiabao's efforts against mine deaths:

"In a country famously assumed to be authoritarian, like China, you might think such repeated investment of personal authority by a top leader would produce rapid results."

Pei Minxin's explanation for this seeming paradox makes the most sense: authority is so dispersed and the central government is so hesitant to grab that authority back (other than in tightly military-guarded places like Tibet and Xinjiang) because there is rent seeking behavior up and down the chain of command that MUST BE SATISFIED.

Without corrupt local officials on its side, the government not only loses any presence at the village and township level, but it is faced with a potential new enemy, as Kevin O'Brien and others have shown. Local officials can bolt and go populist.

The potential for this is shown most strangely and tragically in the cases of mine bosses and small town despots who are able to rally workers to STOP the shutting down of unsafe mines.

PM Abe on Korean comfort women...

Prime Minister Abe is quoted (link) as saying: "The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion" (a repudiation of his own government's apology in 1993).

Like President Reagan on the Vietnam War: "Those Americans who went to Vietnam fought for freedom, a truly noble cause" (link).

Tidying up history can deliver political dividends far down the road, clearly. But I wonder if it doesn't end up distancing people from their own countries in the end, all that white paint makes for a history that's rather hard to access. Surely pain is a part of living in a country, feeling a part of something, thinking of responsibilities.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

China's chaos as "Wild West"?

The first time I remember hearing someone compare China to the "Wild West" was when I studied there (in China, not the Wild West) in 2001. An American guy--nice in many ways but with many of the more obnoxious characteristics of expats--declared happily that in the P.R.C. "you can do anything... it's like the Wild West." I was pretty angry with him--what gall, taking one's host country as a playground!

But that motif comes up again and again. And it's not really inaccurate.

Yesterday's New York Times piece on the Shanghai stock market crash began with the words "In China’s wild cowboy stock market...."

As the author, David Barboza, went on to describe how Chinese companies' stocks actually rise when their CEOs are accused of corruption, my first thoughts were that this is mayhem! Name recognition ALONE driving stock prices, even INFAMY is good! Yes, the Wild West! Then, I thought of how corruption might be seen as good by investors, y'know in a Tamany Hall sense... a historical reference again.

Indeed, it is quite easy to view China (or other parts of the developing world, for that matter) as simply being on a continuum of the Western experience. You hear it often from the tough guys who see in the P.R.C.'s labor problems "only what we went through a century ago." You hear it from neo-liberal economists and lefties alike.

But there is a big difference. China's "Wild West" is contained within a government cloak. As evidenced in today's follow-up NY Times piece, "Chinese Investors Shrug, and Shanghai Rallies", small investors in China are going back to the same stock brokers after the crash that they lost money on before. They are doing so in large part because the government "will not let anything terrible happen."

It's like a capitalist Cultural Revolution---mayhem within limits.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

New Year's parade

I just attended the big New Year's parade on Mott Street (see photos above). Marching bands and corporate-sponsored floats mixed with older Chinatown mutual aid societies. It's funny how "Chinese New Year" is becoming an American holiday of sorts.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Peaceful rise

I just came across an interesting blog on "China's influence on the developing world." It's called Peaceful Rising and is run by "a historian and a cultural anthropologist."

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Obama begins campaign

So, I suppose I'm one of those people who's pretty caught up in the whole Obama excitement, but I've got a good, simple reason: there's excitement.

If Obama doesn't jump through all the liberal/left's hoops and do everything the old way, that's fine. The other politicians have ditched progressives after the primaries, anyway. What he's got is a forward-looking sense of what America is about that is at the heart of what liberalism's about--and no one seems to have captured that like him in years.

(Photo courtesy of NY Times)

Friday, February 02, 2007

More on labor contract law

In These Times has a report on multinationals' opposition to China's new labor contract law. See Fights Over Chinese Labor Reform .

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Three Gorges Embezzlement

BBC reports: "More than $30m has been embezzled from funds allocated for residents displaced by China's Three Gorges Dam project, state media has said." What can one possibly do about such plain, everday, devastatingly anti-social behavior?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Lan Chengzhang

I am always hoping for that turning point when Hu and Wen live up to the hopes some of us placed in them right after SARS, for that turning point when they will let us know that they've only been clamping down until the right moment arrived, that they've been waiting for some rivals to fall aside before they make their big political reformist move. That moment probably won't ever come (as just about everyone else but me has admitted).

But at least we can expect a few more moments of change like the aftermath of Sun Zhigang's death, when "detention and repatriation" was abolished. At least we can expect some tweaking of the state's coercive apparatus.

Such a moment may have come again with the journalist (or fake journalist by some accounts) Lan Chengzhang's beating death at the hands mine thugs. Hu has intervened as Wen did for a woman whose husband was owed back wages long, long ago--back when we thought the leaders might be a new wind.

The furor this time is a little too planned. Why allow discussion of the incident for so long? It's more like the death penalty debate a little while ago (which led to a policy of referring all capital cases to the Supreme People's Court) than the out-of-control Sun Zhigang case. Maybe this is being used for a long-planned change.

But what would the change be? Lan Chengzhang's death epitomizes something huge in China's new economy: corporate-official collusion. Changing this would mean actualizing the last NPC meeting's decision to relax pressure on local governments to develop, develop, develop. It would mean an end to giving capitalists a comfy seat at every big meeting, regardless of how they came to their wealth--and risk alienating them as Party supporters. And it would mean really unshackling the press.

For the best summary of coverage on Lan Chengzhang, see, as always EastSouthWestNorth's collection.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

There are some things for which tabloid papers are perfect. One is populism (though under the watchful eye of Mr. Murdoch tabloid populism in New York City has tended toward the right-wing, anti-union variety). Another is tales of everyday heroism.

The story of Wesley Autrey combines both qualities perfectly. On January 3rd, Mr. Autrey, described by the NY Times as "a 50-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran" taking his two daughters home after work, saved the life of a 20-year-old student, Cameron Hollowpeter, who had fallen onto the subway tracks on the 1 line. He did this by jumping down and pushing the young man into a narrow space between the tracks and lying there with him as the train passed inches over both their heads.

This is obviously first and foremost a tale of basic, startling decency. Of a solidarity that is human and--with its split moment decision-making--far above politics, race and culture.

But it is also the kind of story that pops up now and then, most notably on 9/11, wherein working people are held up as the heart and soul of America. Firefighters, cops and construction workers. Or, less glamorously, the farmers courted in Iowa every four years. People who we say show us what it's all about.

For too much of the media, this is where it stops. Good people. Then forgotten.

The TV stations will go back to a steady stream of sitcoms about ridiculously upper-middle class citizens, facing--we are told--problems common to us all. In cars and homes beyond most of our reach. And spaced between ads for investments and technologies most of us won't ever handle.

Taking up working people's specific needs--in wages, time with family, healthcare, housing, workplace democracy--is either only a vague slogan (a la the Democrats routine half-baked plans for almost-"universal" healthcare) or, when broached by the wrong people (like the immigrant MTA employees during last year's subway strike), portrayed as downright "disruptive."

Working people aren't any more virtuous than the bourgeoisie. People are people, filled with the same faults and same valor. And, again, an act like Mr. Autrey's is a human act above all else.

But stories like his (and the response they receive) reveal a need to connect, to give thanks that goes beyond a specific moment of heroism. There is a sense of debt bigger than that of one student nearly hit by a train. And, in the sense of the community such moments offer, the possibility of a real community somewhere off in the future.

[Photo courtesy of NY Times]