Whatever its virtues, the United Nations isn’t the first place you’d
turn to if you wanted to expose some nefarious internal practices of its more
powerful member states. So it came as no small surprise when a U.N. investigator
last week documented the “widespread” use of torture in China. Manfred
Nowak, who is the special rapporteur of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, noted
that electric shock, sleep deprivation and submersion in water or sewage are still
common practices in China when the state seeks to obtain confessions and suppress
the political dissent it delicately terms “deviant behavior.”
This is hardly the image of the new, improved capitalist China that the neo-Communist
regime and American business have teamed up to convey. As they depict it, China
is a bustling, modern society that offers everything a company could possibly
want to do business. They’re right — and that’s just the problem.
Because if China offers anything to the corporations of the world,
it’s a diligent, skilled — and intimidated — work force.
Nowak noted the prevalence of torture in China’s labor camps, where the
inmates have been imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs and activities.
The ultimate crime in China, after all, is to seek to establish autonomous centers
of power — churches, parties, unions — not under the control of
the Communist Party. Workers who have led strikes or tried to organize unions
are still jailed and tortured in the new-model China, as democracy advocate
and union activist Harry Wu — a veteran of the state’s gulags —
This is a story that implicates all of us. Torture, and fear of torture,
are factors in holding costs down in our new-age globalized production system.
Take just-in-time delivery, add a touch of submersion in shit, fear of beating,
fear of drowning, and voilà! You get Wal-Mart’s everyday low prices.
That’s not quite how the story gets conveyed in the business press, however.
When American economists and executives opine about China, you don’t hear
about the jailing and abuse of workers who seek decent living standards. There’s
nothing new in this: Our guys in the oil business have never said word one about
the repressive Saudi regime, and United Fruit was always the Latin American
banana-republic dictator’s best friend. But China is different. It’s
not just one benighted sector of American capitalism that’s made its accommodations
there. Virtually every major U.S. firm involved in manufacturing and marketing
is beating a path to China’s door — and surrendering there any political
principles they may have brought with them. Rupert Murdoch’s agreement
not to air any officially disapproved broadcasts over his satellite TV system
is just one, albeit egregious, example.
So the next time China has a Tian An Men Square–like convulsion, don’t
count on American business to support the Chinese democrats trying to stop the
tanks. A more democratic China means workers with more rights and higher wages.
For which reason the U.S. government is likely to be conflicted as well. Even
now, while the Defense Department views China as a threat, the Commerce Department
views it as a trading partner, or even an extension of the American system of
production. Nor is it a given that a Democratic administration would be less
immune than the Bush administration is to this political schizophrenia. It was
the Clinton White House, after all, that promoted China’s no-questions-asked
admission to the World Trade Organization.
Suppress unions and you get violence: The Middle Kingdom is home to more labor
unrest than any other place — actually, than every other place —
on the planet. In the factory zones, workers riot and disrupt when their pay
is withheld or their co-workers perish doing dangerous jobs that no one in power
cared to make safer. In the West, the riot was the normal form of worker protest
before unions were legalized in the 19th and 20th centuries. And destabilizing
and destructive as riots may be, they pose less of a threat to a quasi-totalitarian
regime like China than an orderly strike led by an autonomous workers’
China may be the most nominal of socialist states, but its claim to legitimacy
is still rooted in mumbled phrases about empowering workers. Accordingly, it
has its own government-run unions, which aren’t really unions at all.
Controlled by the Communist Party, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions
features locals whose leaders are often selected by the employer. These unions
do not strike — that would be against the law, and disruptive of the social
harmony and political control that the powers that be seek to maintain. They
cannot bargain aggressively.
It should shock no one, then, that Wal-Mart — a company that closed down
all its meat departments in the U.S. when butchers in one store voted to unionize
— has embraced the government union in China. “Should associates
[the Wal-Mart term for employees] request the formation of a union,” the
company said in a statement released late last year, “the company would
respect their wishes.” In Bentonville and Beijing, the only good union
is a sham union.
What’s curious is why some of America’s most brilliant and dedicated
union leaders should be cozying up to the same sham unionists. At the first
organizing conference of the new Change To Win Federation, which convened last
month in Las Vegas, delegates welcomed invited guests from the All-China Federation.
Ninety-nine times out of 100, the leaders of the Service Employees International
Union (the Change To Win union most predisposed to the All-China Federation)
can smell a company union a mile away. This time, their noses — well,
their strategic and moral sense — failed them.
But they’re hardly alone. American companies and consumers count on China;
it’s the producer of choice for a nation — ours — where incomes,
on average, no longer rise. Only a spoilsport from the United Nations would
have the gall to disturb us with the news that our spiffy, 21st-century, integrated
global economic system is built on the barbarism of despots and thugs.