Thursday, February 28, 2008

Labor Contract Law having an effect

Those who dismiss the new Labor Contract Law as window-dressing by the Chinese government have some pretty concrete changes to explain.

Companies are leaving the coast for the inland or other countries. It's a fact. The departure of Korean firms has been especially dramatic. From AP:
In Qingdao alone, about 200 mostly small and medium-sized factories closed down without paying wages and taxes, said Kim Oh-ryong, deputy director of the China division at South Korea's Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy.
If you set up a Google news alert for the terms "China" and "labor" you will get a rash of dire pieces from industry publications and bloggers. See, for example, this observation from Seeking Alpha:
Many factories in the Southern part of China will be closing before Chinese New Year and not reopening. The new labor law instituted by the Chinese government is too much for many of the marginal factories to absorb.
It is important to note that many of these factory owners, while bemoaning the new Labor Contract Law, are not really reacting to provisions in the law itself, but are focusing on social security payments, wages, hours, emergency exits----stuff they were ALWAYS required to pay! In other words, the new legislation is being read not so much as legislation at all but as an omen of greater government scrutiny.

It may be that companies will calm down. But if they don't, it seems that the Chinese government is not panicking. Beijing knows it has to begin to move beyond its reliance on sweatshops into more high-tech industries---it is simply impossible to compete forever with Southeast Asia on being cheap and it makes no sense to endlessly depress domestic consumption.

China has actually raised minimum wages in many places since the law's passage ( in response to inflation first and foremost, of course). China Labour Bulletin acknowledges that the ACFTU may be starting to take its roles seriously---in Shenzhen at least. CLB has further noted recent prosecutions of company bosses. In an interview with The New Republic's website, Han Dongfang even says (not in quotes):
... the government is starting to sanction NGOs that assist workers, so long as they don't challenge the ruling party.
Doubt about implementation of the Labor Contract Law is understandable. Criticisms of the government for not doing enough are always in order. But dismissing the law as completely useless, as some have done, just doesn't match with the reality on the ground.

And it is a disservice to the many activists in China working hard to build on these new opportunities.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

America now and then

I just read some essays from a collection ("Styles of Radical Will") that Susan Sontag published in 1966.  Throughout, I was struck by the difference that forty years have made.

Sontag's chronicle of a solidarity mission to North Vietnam during the war ("Trip to Hanoi") is as honest an attempt to sort out cross-cultural interactions as I've ever read, avoiding both the temptations of a know-it-all travelogue on the one hand and extreme self-consciousness and self-criticism on the other. But her musings about different modes of thinking, East vs. West, revolutionary societies vs. the United States, comes across as quaint today. 

It is incredible how much more familiar Asia now feels to Americans than when she wrote the essay and how concrete and mundane conflicts in different lands now appear---even if, unusually, those conflicts are in fact rooted in deep political convictions as, I believe, the Vietnam War was. Social science, with its numbers and comparisons, its economics and its models and "failed states", has won out, for now, over the epic, the ideologue.  

Her response to a series of questions from Partisan Review ("What's Happening in America") feels even more revealing period-wise.  Sontag blasts all of us for "the pollution of American space, with gadgetry and cars and TV and box architecture" and concludes that "today's America, with Ronald Reagan the new daddy of California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing." Addressing the Vietnam War, Sontag implies that violence and tackiness extend from our culture to our foreign policy.

She defends the counter-culture.  But she does so as essentially a reaction to the hopelessly corrupt mainstream---mainstream America AND the mainstream of the Old Left ("no need for dismay if the kids don't continue to pay the old dissenter-gods [Freud and Marx] obeisance").

What we want now, in 2008, is, basically, the opposite.

People long for a tradition to be a part of.  I think the popularity of the Obama celebrity music video lies in part in how it ties today's young people to "union organizers" and "abolitionists" and, of course, through its monumental feel, to Dr. King---mighty traditions, mightier than anything people can think of today.  

The same, to a lesser degree, goes for the old-fashioned silkscreen Obama posters you see sometimes, the return of Johnny Cash to center stage near his death, the craze for revolutionary green caps, boot jeans and singers channeling the IWW or Pete Seeger (the Springsteen album before last, for example). Or Wild West TV shows ("Deadwood") and movies ("3:10 to Yuma," "There Will Be Blood," "The Assassination of Jesse James," "No Country for Old Men," etc., etc.")---wild west stuff having long been a playground for progressive narratives.  

Not real populist stuff, most of this---not any more than the folksy symbols in a Ben Harper album's artwork.  

But what people want now is not to trash unthinking squares and jingoists---the targets of Sontag's ire---but to have some sort of affirmation that the Left and progress are rooted in squares, too.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Spielberg's resignation

Steven Spielberg's resignation from his role as artistic director for the 2008 Olympics is starting to make an impact on the Chinese net. Danwei and Global Voices Online have a number of translations from the brewing debate.

Predictably, nationalists have jumped on the news with acid scorn for the director. More disappointing, the cynical real politik you sometimes hear from Chinese university students has reared its head--"the West is just trying to edge China out of Sudanese oil for its own interests," "this is how big powers behave and now we are a big power," etc. Sure, the U.S. has its own record in regards to fossil fuels and violence, but for young people in other countries to be pumping that as a role model for their own leaders really drains the air out of the room. It is like the formation of an international wing of the Young Republicans.

And outright baffling--as much as one should be prepared for it--is how little sense there seems to be on the Chinese net of how NORMAL it is for activist groups to campaign on an issue, that not every organization is the mouthpiece for some foreign government (though some, of course, are part-time) and that, yes, plenty of citizens in plenty of countries demand a say in their countries' foreign policies.

But other voices have joined in, too. Danwei translates a post by Wang Xiaoyu that sarcastically praises Spielberg's collaborator, Zhang Yimou, who has not quit his position in the Games, as "China's Riefenstahl" and ends with this:

A PhD student at Renmin University who is relatively familiar with international affairs told Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao that he has frequently heard the name Darfur in the news, but he is not at all clear what the situation there has to do with China, or why people want to boycott the Beijing Olympics over this: "It's truly mystifying." This PhD student is full proof that our higher education system is completely successful. Congratulations.

Other Chinese bloggers have laid out short chronologies of the Darfur conflict for readers (see John Kennedy's translation here).

The point is that this thing is spreading. Will it change Chinese policy overnight? No. But if you really want to influence Zhongnanhai by putting pressure on it where it really feels pressure, you go to the one relationship that keeps Chinese leaders up at night: not their relationship with Sudan or even the United States, but their relationship with their own people.

When the government has to respond to the growing online discussion--and it will respond, even if the discussion ends up lopsided toward the nationalist, anti-Spielberg faction--then another entry point has been created.

An entry point for foreign interference? No, people in China will make up their own minds. But an entry point for an issue, for making it REAL to the P.R.C.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Australia returning to Asia?

New Australian PM Kevin Rudd is a welcome change. From BBC:
The last asylum seekers have left Australia's detention camp on Nauru, putting an end to the controversial "Pacific Solution" immigration policy.

Maybe Australia will now really begin to think again about what it means to be part of Asia---not in terms of meetings with the leaders of different countries and fanciful talk of some sort of grand democracy alliance (with India and Japan), but as just another country in the region.

Australia is a white settler country, like the U.S. or Canada (though arguably with a stronger indigenous movement), and it is a continent in its own right. But it is also an increasingly diverse society and is tied to the same issues affecting Indonesia, Vietnam, China...

Monday, February 04, 2008

The snow

The media routinely says a whole host of things threaten the power of China's ruling Party--the internet, religion, protesting farmers, rock and roll, the middle class (?) and the market.

But when we really, truly see the CCP shaking, it is because of failures to fulfill the routine tasks required of any state. This week's snowstorm and the government's clumsy response, which resulted in Wen Jiabao apologizing to tens of thousands of huddled workers waiting for delayed trains home, was such an instance. The failures of authorities were understandable in a way (snow like that doesn't usually fall in the southeast of China) but the country's overweighted power lines (spaced too far apart to save money) and inability to provide adequate emergency housing were serious mistakes---and were compounded by galling calls for workers to celebrate Spring Festival, the biggest holiday of the year, inside their factories. Which had closed.

The SARS epidemic and its coverup in 2003-2004 was another such instance. The recent protests against the Xiamen PX chemical plant and the Shanghai mag-lev train extension also fall in this category: the government failed in both instances to properly inform the public about its (poorly conceived) development plans. So too, in a way, do the environmental disasters that have sent people into the streets.

Does this mean that people in China are fine with authoritarianism just so long as, in a phrase borrowed from Mussolini's time but appropriate today, "it can make the trains run on time"?

I don't think this is the case, at least not any more the case for the Chinese than for any other people.

A comparison with President Bush's failure to provide timely relief to the residents of New Orleans is instructive: this failure was seen, quite rightly, as symptomatic of residents' everyday experience of racism and disregard for the poor.

Government and market incompetence on a grand scale remind people of the small indignities they have suffered at the hands of the government and market. The middle class is reminded of the red tape and paperwork and corruption and insensitive government projects that stifle their small businesses and disrupt their housing developments. Working people think of the general callousness of employers and cops.