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."