|The Anti-China Trade Campaign: Wrong and Dangerous
It is against this complex backdrop of a country struggling for
development under a political system, which, while not democratic along
Western lines, is nevertheless legitimate, and which realizes that its
continuing legitimacy depends on its ability to deliver economic growth
that one must view the recent debate in the US over the granting of
Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to China.
PNTR is the standard tariff treatment that the United States gives nearly
all its trading partners, with the exception of China, Afghanistan, Serbia-
Montenegro, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. Granting of PNTR
is seen as a key step in China's full accession to the World Trade
Organization (WTO) since the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement establishing
the WTO requires members to extend NTR to other WTO members
mutually and without conditions. This is the reason that the fight over
PNTR is so significant, in that it is integrally linked to China's full
accession to the WTO.
Organized labor is at the center of a motley coalition that is against
granting PNTR to China. This coalition includes right wing groups and
personalities like Pat Buchanan, the old anti-China lobby linked to the
anti-communist Kuomintang Party in Taiwan, protectionist US business
groups, and some environmentalist, human rights, and citizens' rights
groups. The intention of this right-left coalition is to be able to use trade
sanctions to influence China's economic and political behavior as well as
to make it difficult for China to enter the WTO.
There are fundamental problems with the position of this alliance, many
of whose members are, without doubt, acting out of the best intentions.
First of all, the anti-China trade campaign is essentially another
manifestation of American unilateralism. Like many in the anti-PNTR
coalition, we do not uphold the free-trade paradigm that underpins the
NTR. Like many of them, we do not think that China will benefit from
WTO membership. But what is at issue here is not the desirability or
non-desirability of the free trade paradigm and the WTO in advancing
people's welfare. What is at issue here is Washington's unilateral moves
to determine who is to be a legitimate member of the international
economic community--in this case, who is qualified to join and enjoy full
membership rights in the WTO.
This decision of whether or not China can join the WTO is one that must
be determined by China and the 137 member-countries of the WTO,
without one power exercising effective veto power over this process. To
subject this process to a special bilateral agreement with the United
States that is highly conditional on the acceding country's future
behavior falls smack into the tradition of unilateralism.
One reason the anti-China trade campaign is particularly disturbing is
that it comes on the heels of a series of recent unilateralist acts, the
most prominent of which have been Washington's cruise missile attacks
on alleged terrorist targets in the Sudan and Afghanistan in August
1998, its bombing of Iraq in December 1998, and the US-instigated 12-
week NATO bombardment of Kosovo in 1999. In all three cases, the US
refused to seek UN sanction or approval but chose to act without
international legal restraints. Serving as the gatekeeper for China's
integration into the global economic community is the economic correlate
of Washington's military unilateralism.
Second, the anti-China trade campaign reeks of double standards. A
great number of countries would be deprived of PNTR status were the
same standards sought from China applied to them, including Singapore
(where government controls the labor movement), Mexico (where labor is
also under the thumb of government), Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states
(where women are systematically relegated by law and custom to
second-class status as citizens), Pakistan (where a military dictatorship
reigns), Brunei (where democratic rights are non-existent), to name just a
few US allies. What is the logic and moral basis for singling out China
when there are scores of other regimes that are, in fact, so much more
insensitive to the political, economic, and social needs of their
Third, the campaign is marked by what the great Senator J. William
Fulbright denounced as the dark side of the American spirit that led to
the Vietnam debacle--that is, "the morality of absolute self-assurance
fired by the crusading spirit."10 It draws emotional energy not so much
from genuine concerns for human and democratic rights in China but
from the knee-jerk emotional ensemble of anti-communism that
continues to plague the US public despite the end of the Cold War.
When one progressive organizer says that non-passage of the PNTR
would inflict defeat on "the brutal, arrogant, corrupt, autocratic, and
oligarchic regime in Beijing," the strong language is not unintentional: it
meant to hit the old Cold War buttons to mobilize the old anti-communist,
conservative constituency, in the hope of building a right-left populist
base that could--somehow--be directed at "progressive" ends.
Fourth, the anti-China trade campaign is intensely hypocritical. As many
critics of the campaign have pointed out, the moral right of the US to
deny permanent normal trading rights to China on social and
environmental grounds is simply nonexistent given its record: the largest
prison population in the world, the most state-sponsored executions of
any country in the world, the highest income disparities among
industrialized countries, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases,
and quasi-slavery conditions for farm workers.11
Fifth, the anti-China trade campaign is intellectually flawed. The issue of
labor control in China lies at the core of the campaign, which blames
China's government for the low wages that produce the very
competitively priced goods that are said to contribute to displacing US
industries and workers. This is plain wrong: the relatively low wages in
China stem less from wage repression than from the dynamics of
economic development. Widespread poverty or low economic growth are
the main reasons for the low wages in developing countries. Were the
state of unionism the central determinant of wage levels, as the AFL-CIO
claims, labor costs in authoritarian China and democratic India, with its
formally free trade union movement, would not be equal, as they, in fact,
Similarly, it is mainly the process of economic growth--the dynamic
interaction between the growing productivity of labor, the reduction of the
wage-depressing surplus of rural labor, and rising profits--that triggers
the rapid rise in wage levels in an economy, as shown in the case of
Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore, which had no independent unions and
where strikes were illegal during their periods of rapid development.12
Saying that the dynamics of development rather than the state of labor
organizing is by far the greatest determinant of wage levels is not to say
that the organization of labor is inconsequential. Successful organizing
has gotten workers a higher level of wages than would be possible were
it only the dynamics of economic development that were at work. It is not
to argue that labor organizing is not desirable in developing economies.
Of course, it is not only desirable but necessary, so that workers can
keep more of the value of production for themselves, reduce their
exploitation by transnational and state capitalist elites, and gain more
control over their conditions of work.
Sixth, the anti-China trade campaign is dishonest. It invokes concern
about the rights of Chinese workers and the rights of the Chinese
people, but its main objective is to protect American jobs against cheap
imports from China. This is cloaking self-interest with altruistic rhetoric.
What the campaign should be doing is openly acknowledging that its
overriding goal is to protect jobs, which is a legitimate concern and goal.
And what it should be working for is not invoking sanctions on human
rights grounds, but working out solutions such as managed trade, which
would seek to balance the need of American workers to protect their jobs
while allowing the market access that allows workers in other countries
to keep their jobs and their countries to sustain a certain level of growth
while they move to change their development model.13
Instead, what the rhetoric of the anti-China trade campaign does is to
debase human rights and democratic rights language with its hypocrisy
while delegitimizing the objective of protecting jobs--which is a central
social and economic right--by concealing it.
Seventh, the anti-China trade campaign is a classic case of blaming the
victim. China is not the enemy. Indeed, it is a prisoner of a global system
of rules and institutions that allows transnational corporations to take
advantage of the differential wage levels of counties at different levels of
development to increase their profits, destabilize the global environment
by generalizing an export-oriented, high-consumption model of
development, and concentrate global income in fewer and fewer hands.
Not granting China PNTR will not affect the functioning of this global
system. Not giving China normal trading and investment rights will not
harm transnational corporations; they will simply take more seriously the
option of moving to Indonesia, Mauritius, or Mexico, where their ability to
exact concessions is greater than in China, which can stand up to
foreign interests far better than the weak governments of these
What the AFL-CIO and others should be doing is targeting this global
system, instead of serving up China as a proxy for it.
A Positive Agenda
The anti-China trade campaign amounts to a Faustian bargain that
seeks to buy some space for US organized labor at the expense of real
solidarity with workers and progressive worker and environmental
movements globally against transnational capital. But by buying into the
traditional US imperial response of unilateralism, it will end up eventually
eroding the position of progressive labor, environmental, and civil society
movements both in the US and throughout the world.
What organized labor and US NGO's should be doing, instead, is
articulating a positive agenda aimed at weakening the power of global
corporations and multilateral agencies that promote TNC-led
The first order of business is to not allow the progressive movement to
be sandbagged in the pro-permanent normal trade relations, anti-
permanent normal trade relations terms of engagement that now frames
the debate. While progressives must, for the time being, oppose the
more dangerous threat posed by the unilateralists, they should be
developing a position on global economic relations that avoids both the
free trade paradigm that underlies the PNTR and the unilateralist
paradigm of the anti-PNTR forces. The model we propose is managed
trade, which allows trading partners to negotiate bilateral and multilateral
treaties that address central issues in their relationship--among them, the
need to preserve workers jobs in the US with the developing countries'
need for market access.
Advocacy of managed trade must, however, be part of a broader
campaign for progressive global economic governance. The strategic
aim of such a campaign must be the tighter regulation, if not
replacement, of the model corporate-led free market development that
seeks to do away with social and state restrictions on the mobility of
capital at the expense of labor. In its place must be established a system
of genuine international cooperation and looser global economic
integration that allows countries to follow paths of national and regional
development that make the domestic market and regional markets rather
than the global market the engine of growth, development, and job
This means support for measures of asset and income redistribution that
would create the purchasing power that will make domestic markets
viable. It means support for trade measures and capital controls that will
give countries more control over their trade and finance so that
commodity and capital flows become less disruptive and destabilizing. It
means support for regional integration or regional economic union
among the developing countries as an alternative to indiscriminate
A key element in this campaign for a new global economic governance is
the abolition of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and
the World Trade Organization that serve as the pillars of the system of
corporate-led globalization and their replacement with a pluralistic
system of institutions that complement but at the same time check and
balance one another, thus giving the developing countries the space to
pursue their paths to development.
The IMF, World Bank, and WTO are currently experiencing a severe
crisis of legitimacy, following the debacle in Seattle, the April protests in
Washington, and the release of the report of the International Financial
Institutions Advisory Commission (Meltzer Commission) appointed by the
US Congress, which recommends the radical downsizing or
transformation of the Bank and Fund.14 Now is the time for the
progressive movement to take the offensive and push for the elimination
or radical transformation of these institutions. Yet, here we are, being
waylaid from this critical task at this key moment by an ill-advised,
divisive campaign to isolate the wrong enemy!
Another key thrust of a positive agenda is a coordinated drive by civil
society groups in the North and the South to pressure the US, China,
and all other governments to ratify and implement all conventions of the
International Labor Organization (ILO) and give the ILO more effective
authority to monitor, supervise, and adjudicate implementation of these
conventions. This campaign must be part of a broader effort to support
the formation of genuine labor unions in China, the Southern United
States, and elsewhere in a spirit of real workers' solidarity. This, instead
of relying on government trade sanctions that are really self-serving
rather than meant to support Third World workers, is the route to the
creation of really firm ties of solidarity across North-South lines.
This social and economic program must be tied to a strategy for
protecting the global environment that also eschews sanctions as an
approach and puts the emphasis on promoting sustainable development
models in place of the export-led, high-consumption development model;
pushes the adoption of common environmental codes that prevent
transnational firms from pitting one country against another in their
search for the zero cost environmental regimes; and promotes an
environmental Marshall Plan aimed at transferring appropriate green
process and production technologies to China and other developing
Above all, this approach must focus not on attacking China and the
South but on strategically changing the production and consumption
behavior and levels in the North that are by far the biggest source of
Finally, a positive agenda must have as a central element civil society
groups in the North working constructively with people's movements in
China, the United States, and other countries experiencing democratic
deficits to support the expansion of democratic space. While the
campaign must be uncompromising in denouncing acts of repression like
the Tienanmen Square massacre and Washington's use of mass
incarceration as a tool of social control, it must avoid imposing the forms
of Western procedural democracy on others and hew to the principle
that it is the people in these countries themselves that must take the lead
in building democracy according to their rhythm, traditions, and cultures.
The anti-PNTR coalition is an alliance born of opportunism. In its effort to
block imports from China, the AFL-CIO is courting the more conservative
sectors of the US population, including the Buchananite right wing, by
stirring the old Cold War rhetoric. Nothing could be a more repellent
image of this sordid project than John Sweeney, James Hoffa, President
of the Teamsters, and Pat Buchanan holding hands in the anti-China
trade rally on April 12, 2000, with Buchanan promising to make Hoffa his
top negotiator of trade, if he won the race for president.
Some environmental groups and citizens groups which have long but
unsuccessfully courted labor, have, in turn, endorsed the campaign
because they see it as the perfect opportunity to build bridges to the
AFL-CIO. What we have, as a result, is an alliance built on the assertion
of US unilateralism rather than on the cornerstone of fundamental
shared goals of solidarity, equity, and environmental integrity.
This is not a progressive alliance but a right-wing populist alliance in the
tradition of the anti-communist Big Government-Big Capital-Big Labor
alliance during the Cold War, the labor-capital alliance in the West that
produced the Exclusion and Ant-Miscegenation Acts against Chinese,
Japanese, and Filipino workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
and, more recently, the populist movement that has supported the
tightening of racist immigration laws by emphasizing the divide between
workers who are citizens and workers who are not, with the latter being
deprived of basic political rights.
It is a policy that will, moreover, feed global instability by lending
to the efforts of the US right and the Pentagon to demonize China as
The Enemy and resurrect Containment as America's Grand Strategy,
this time with China instead of the Soviet Union as the foe in a paradigm
designed to advance American strategic hegemony.
As in every other instance of unprincipled unity between the right and
some sectors of the progressive movement, progressives will find that it
will be the right that will walk away with the movement while they will be
left with not even their principles.
It is time to move away from this terribly misguided effort to derail the
progressive movement by demonizing China, and to bring us all back to
the spirit of Seattle as a movement of citizens of the world against
corporate-led globalization and for genuine international cooperation.
*Walden Bello is executive director of Focus on the Global South, a
program of research, analysis, and capacity building based in Bangkok;
Anuradha Mittal is co-director of the Oakland-based Institute for Food
and Development Policy, better known as Food First. We would like to
thank Nicola Bullard, Peter Rosset, and Sal Glynn for their invaluable
advice and assistance.
1. Quoted in John Gershman, "How to Debate the China Issue without
China Bashing," Progressive Response, Vol. 4, No. 17, April 20, 2000.
2. Lester Brown, Who Will Feed China? (New York: Norton, 1995).
3. Anil Agarwal, Sunita Narain, and Anju Sharma, eds., Green Politics
(New Delhi: Center for Science and Environment, 2000), p. 108.
4. Ibid., p. 16.
5. FAO and IMPACT data cited in Simeon Ehui, "Trade and Food
Systems in the Developing World," Presentation at Salzburg Seminar,
Salzburg, Austria, May 11, 2000.
6. Amnesty International, Unted States of America: Rights for All
(London: amnesty International Publications, 1998).
7. Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Farrar,
Straus Giroux, 1999), p. 50.
8. Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of
American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), p. 50.
9. John Gray, False Dawn (New York: New Press, 1998), pp. 189-190.
10. J. William Fulbright, quoted in Walter McDougall, Promised Land,
Crusader State (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 206.
11. See Anuradha Mittal and Peter Rosset, "The Real Enemy is the
WTO, not China," Peaceworks, March 1, 2000; and Jim Smith, "The
China Syndrome--or, How to Hijack a Movement," LA Labor News, Aprl
12. For the state of the labor movement in these societies in the period
of rapid growth, see Walden Bello and Stephanie Rosenfeld, Dragons in
Distress: Asia's Miracle Economies in Crisis (San Francisco: Institute for
Food and Development Policy, 1990).
13. For more on managed trade, see, among others, Johnson, p. 174.
14. Report of the US Congressional International Financial Institution
Advisory Commission (Washington: DC, US Congress, Feb. 2000).
© Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First