China has become a major local issue. This hit me when shopping for running shoes. I checked store after store, brand after brand, model after model. In stores with dozens of types, I typically found-maybe-one model made outside China.
It’s enlightening the responses you’ll get when you politely request a product that was not manufactured under a fascist regime.
“What’s a fashion reg… What?” responded one young woman.
Ask for Bin Laden toilet paper or glow-in-the-dark gum, and they’ll consult computerized catalogues and promise it within days. But ask for something guaranteed not to have been made by child slaves, and you’ll get a blank, annoyed stare or helpless shrug.
Worse, you’ll get a sympathetic moan-from the head purchaser. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it is these days.”
Canada’s importing ten times more from China than just over a decade ago, surpassing $29 billion yearly and making China our second biggest trading partner. In many Victoria stores, Chinese products make up 100% of most lines of sporting goods, electronics, clothes and more.
Managers blame you and me. “Our hands are tied,” explained one. “Our customers want things cheap.”
So if I’d walked in 70 years earlier distributing gold fillings from Holocaust victims, would they have simply said, “Gee… Are they cheap?”
“And there’ll be plenty more!”
Nobody’s suggesting China is exterminating millions, but let’s get something straight: modern regimes don’t come much worse. Most human rights groups rank it somewhere between the catastrophe that is Sudan, evil enemy du jour Iran, and Burma.
Even the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” doesn’t equivocate. China, clarifies the report, is an “authoritarian state” with a “poor” human rights record, where imprisonment of journalists, activists and their defence lawyers is standard. Censorship is extensive, court proceedings secret, executions and “extrajudicial killings” frequent. There’s “widespread” torture in “harsh and degrading” prisons. There’s no minimum wage, and independent unions and strikes are illegal. Forced labour is common. And never mind health, safety and environmental standards, where lethal pet foods are just the leading edge of a gathering storm.
Of course, this isn’t news. Heck, this is the government who resolved an internationally publicized non-violent protest in 1989 by massacring some two thousand people.
But even though we know this, we’re unwilling to truly admit it to ourselves. BC chain Mountain Equipment Co-op’s explanations for why they buy from China are a perfect case in point.
MEC admits China has been controversial for their organization and inform us that they “select factories that aspire to fair labour practices.”
Operative word: “aspire”. Once you get past pages of self-praising promo about “ethical sourcing”, a 2005 report recounts how auditing 11 of their Chinese suppliers (of 697 total suppliers) exposed 115 contraventions of basic standards, including forced labour, child labour, and restrictions on freedom of association.
MEC admits these findings were “sobering”, yet remains “optimistic” that there’ll be “incremental improvements”. But we shouldn’t be too hopeful. For example, they caution, while MEC “in principle” supports a “living wage”, in reality this is “not easily implemented”. After all, they clarify, living wages could lead to “serious down-stream implications” like-gasp!-“higher prices”. So instead, MEC is merely “working on… getting factories to pay workers the wages they are legally entitled to.”
Guess where that leads, with no legal minimum wage in China… (Incidentally, MEC’s been winning corporate responsibility awards and making record profits.)
MEC calls theirs a “buycott” method of supporting human rights. By giving money to fascists, thugs and rights abusers, their logic goes, MEC is well-positioned to encourage “positive change”.
Well, that’s hypothetically possible. But to anyone who’s done human rights work, it’s a worn-out whitewash. Corporations never admit they’re “exploiting” anyone; they’re always “helping”. For schlepps accustomed to scavenging dumps, they argue, working in a factory at 50 cents an hour for 14-hour days is a DREAM COME TRUE. Conversely, closing factories would hurt those workers. (Of course, opting instead to pay those workers what they’d be paid in Canada is out of the question.)
This identical party line propped up South Africa’s racist apartheid for decades. Finally, the world began to listen to serious human rights organizations, and crippling international boycotts helped abolish apartheid.
Plainly and simply, what MEC and other corporations are doing in China is exploiting vulnerable people. As the U.S. report states, China’s human rights situation has actually “deteriorated” in recent years, and child labour is “prevalent in certain industries” and “on the rise”. October’s New York Times reported on western corporations’ vehement discouragements of China’s draft labour standards.
So MEC’s self-justifying rationalizations are dangerous. They lull us into complacency, into accepting severe oppression as a fact of modern life that can only be improved by playing along with fascists for decades. And we’re attracted to that idea because it’s obviously becoming very difficult NOT to purchase Chinese goods.
Turning this ship requires action at all levels, personally and politically.
And if China soon edges toward domination of the rest of the world economically, politically and militarily, something many analysts predict, we’ll have ourselves to blame. When we could have hinged our economic support on serious improvements in human rights, we instead saw only dollar signs. We’ve helped strengthen the grip of a brutal, totalitarian government over its people, and ultimately over the future of the planet.
Unfortunately, it seems Focus magazine printed a letter this month about this article without contacting me for a response. The letter states that had I “analyzed the [MEC] reports correctly”, that I would have seen that some of their Canadian suppliers had more infractions than their Chinese suppliers.
This assertion is false and misleading.
MEC’s report lists a wide range of “infractions” from relatively minor health concerns to forced child labour. There were 43 infractions in 6 Canadian factories, and 146 in 13 Chinese factories — even averaging, there are more infractions in the Chinese factories. But much more importantly, the Canadian suppliers had infractions mostly health and safety related (27 — to 49 in China), and had no infractions at all in the human rights categories where Chinese suppliers had numerous infractions: child labour, juvenile labour, discrimination, forced labour and restrictions on freedom of association.
Though it’s true that in a few cases specific Canadian suppliers had a greater number of health and safety infractions than specific Chinese suppliers, MEC acknowledges there’s generally a qualitative difference in the nature of the health and safety infractions in the two countries, too. In their report, they state, “Canadian contract factories have similar infractions to the developing world. The marked difference is the severity. For example, local factories often have more minor issues such as poorly posted evacuation plans or partially blocked exits. Their overseas peers have more serious infractions like non-functioning extinguishers or the absence of fire exits.”