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Moral Responsibilities of the Consumer "




Probably one of the most underused but powerful weapons individuals have to effect political and social change in our consumer-driven world is their purchasing power. It has been underused because the correlation between "shopping" and political freedom is not an immediate one to most people.

Yet, economic boycotts have, on the whole, an impressive success record: Gandhi's Swadeshi campaign to rid India of British colonial rule; the boycott and international sanctions against the white South African regime to end apartheid; the imposition of economic sanctions and penalties on Poland by the West that contributed to the downfall of the Communist regime and the advent of democracy there; and the worldwide campaign for shareholder pressure that forced a number of Western companies to withdraw from Burma and compelled the military junta to enter into negotiations with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The fact that the junta has now detained Suu Kyi in no way undermines this line of reasoning. Most experts feel that the Burmese military government was encouraged to harden its line because of the abandonment by Western nations of human rights concerns in China, an ally and patron of the Burmese regime.

But why should the American consumer participate in a boycott to help effect regime change in China? Do Americans (and other countries) really have a moral responsibility towards the people of China and people, such as the Tibetans and East Turkestanis, living under Chinese military occupation?

Even a partial review of China's myriad crimes against humanity provides sufficient reason for any morally conscious person not to buy 'Made in China.' For example, for each purchase that you make, you are funding, promoting or endorsing:

  • the suppression of democracy and freedom
  • wholesale and indiscriminate use of the death penalty
  • commercial harvesting of transplant organs of executed prisoners
  • denial of basic rights to Chinese workers and farmers
  • nationwide forced abortions and sterilizations
  • sweeping and brutal repression of all religions
  • criminal psychiatric abuse of political prisoners
  • routine torture of prisoners
  • military occupation and genocide in Tibet
  • draconian repression in East Turkestan
  • military expansion and aggression
  • world's tightest Internet censorship (and)
  • the largest dealer of "Weapons of Mass Destruction" to rogue states

However, we will discuss here just three salient points for why one should not buy 'Made in China'. For further examples, read our book BUYING THE DRAGON'S TEETH

Point #1: Thousands of factories and sweatshops run directly by the Chinese military manufacture everything from toys to underwear to steel pipes, and export them to the free world to earn the foreign exchange needed for China's military modernization program. Researchers from the AFL-CIO identified ten of what they call People's Liberation Army or PLA-sponsored business groups in the United States, each of which typically has several subsidiary companies.1 A number of these companies are distributors and import-export concerns. Two of these companies, Norinco (a Chinese ordinance company that supplies the PLA with most of its weapons and has ten subsidiary companies in the U.S.) and Poly Technologies (which is run by the PLA's General Staff Department), were linked by the FBI to a scheme to smuggle some thousand AK-47 assault rifles into the United States. Overall the PLA has a global empire of more than 15,000 businesses.2

According to The Cox Report of the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China, through such companies in the United States, Chinese military and intelligence have stolen American nuclear secrets to build long-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States. Also stolen was a large variety of sophisticated technology including high performance computers, satellite technology, aircraft guidance technology for F-15, F-126 and F-117 stealth bombers and design information on America's most advanced thermonuclear weapons.3

The overriding reason why one should not buy goods manufactured by the PLA is that no regime today poses a greater threat to world peace than Communist China. Even before September 11, 2001, there was no doubt of China's preeminent role in the global proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. On February 22, 2001, President Bush announced that the U.S. knew China was involved in developing electronics and radar systems in Iraq to be used against American and British warplanes.

China is rapidly beginning to acquire the capability and economic power to sustain a major war, as evident in the double digit increases in its defense budget year after year.4 This threat to world peace is far greater now than when China was at its most ideologically belligerent under Mao. Whatever the revolutionary rhetoric of Maoist China it lacked the money and the technology to translate its intentions into effective action. But all that has changed, and this has come about exclusively through China's newfound economic power based on it sales of manufactured products to the West.

Point #2: Admittedly, many of the 'Made in China' products we see on the shelves of Wal-Mart or Toys'R'Us are not manufactured by the Chinese military. They are made by ordinary Chinese workers. So where's the harm in that, you may ask? The fundamental issue is that the labor force in China is not free. When we buy goods manufactured in China we are contributing to the perpetuation of a labor force that has no right to organize, to bargain or to strike. In China, labor organizers are either in jail or slave labor (laogai) camps, or have been executed with a bullet in the back of the neck.

On December 22, 2002, in Dafeng, in northern China, a combined force of police and paramilitary forces ended a weeklong strike by storming the Shuangfeng Textile Factory dragging out and beating protesting workers. Many of the workers were arrested, while earlier individual workers targeted as possible labor leaders were taken from their homes and presumably incarcerated.5

The labor conditions for which many Chinese workers go on strike are far more gruesome than the well-known conditions of workers in Nike factories in Asia, which have gotten ample press coverage. In contrast, little is reported, for example, on certain plants in China where corporal punishment is common. Girls in these factories work twelve-hour shifts with only two days leave in a month, and sleep eight to ten crammed in a dormitory room, which is locked at night. Talking is forbidden on the shop floor and to go to the toilet or drink a glass of water requires a permission card. Sexual harassment is common and punishment of uncooperative workers can involve beating, confinement or cancellation of wages. Arriving late can mean half-a-day's wages docked.

The single largest importer of Chinese-made products in the world is the American supermarket chain Wal-Mart, buying $10 billion worth of merchandise every year from several thousand Chinese factories. Charlie Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee reports that Wal-Mart's harsh labor policies were "actually lowering standards in China, slashing wages and benefits, imposing long, mandatory overtime shifts, while tolerating the arbitrary firing of workers who even dare to discuss factory conditions."6

After conducting on-site investigations and interviews with Chinese workers at Wal-Mart factories in China, the National Labor Committee issued a report describing the abysmal treatment of workers at such manufacturing plants. One particular section of the report on the Qin Shi handbag factory describes:

  • 14-hour shifts, 7 days a week, 30 days a month;
  • average take-home pay of 3 cents an hour, $3.10 for a 98-hour workweek;
  • one worker earning 36 cents for an entire month's work;
  • 46 percent of the workers earning nothing at all and actually in debt to the company;
  • workers held as indentured servants, with identification documents confiscated, only allowed to leave the factory 1 hours a day; and
  • 800 workers fired for fighting for their basic rights.7

When manufacturing moves, let us say from the U.S. to China, the efforts and sacrifices of generations of individuals and organizations to secure the rights of workers have been conveniently side-stepped. It is not just a question of jobs moving to countries where wages are lower. Free traders argue that as time goes by labor costs will become more expensive and the Chinese advantage will diminish. But this presupposes that labor in China, like Taiwan or Korea or India, has the potential to demand better wages and conditions. In fact, even modest attempts to organize labor in China have met with harsh crackdowns and imprisonment and executions of labor leaders. One of the real but often unstated reasons why Western companies are reluctant to relocate industries to democracies like India, where labor is cheap, is that their workers are unionized and have definite rights. Accordingly, people should buy goods made in democracies like India or South Korea, or nations on the road to democracy like Indonesia, Bangladesh and others, instead of those made in China.

Point #3: Rather than moving towards democracy via capitalism, the Chinese are creating a new ideology where capitalism can be blended with tyranny, to create a sort of "Market Fascism," as it were. The declared model for this ideology is Singapore. Singapore's civilian exterior, clean-cut orderly economy and anti-democratic politics make up a dangerous "model," not just for the likes of China and Burma, but possibly even for shaky new democracies in Asia and Africa with economic problems and over-ambitious leaders. Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger have honored Lee Kuan Yew as Singapore's "architect of the next century." They and other members of the Nixon Center for Peace and Prosperity probably find the idea of a successful capitalist/fascist country with good golf courses and a muzzled press, secretly attractive. Others of more democratic bent are troubled. In an essay in the New York Times, William Safire warned that "[t]he Singapore virus - the notion that capitalist prosperity can be abetted by political repression - could infect the global economy with its strain of fascism."

With the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a brief period in world history when it appeared that not only had Western capitalist democracy triumphed decisively, but that no possible alternatives even existed to it anymore. We may recall the hubristic declarations about "The End of History" and the like that were characteristic of those heady days. Yet, pace Francis Fukuyama, history not only does not end but sometimes repeats itself, too often in unfortunate ways. We could now be seeing the beginning of an era, quite similar to the years between the two World Wars, when intellectuals, politicians and plutocrats worldwide caviled against the restraints and perceived limitations of democratic governance and sought more profitable and inspiring alternatives in the doctrines of Hitler and Mussolini. Perhaps such a reading could be regarded as unduly alarmist, but China's conscious and perhaps even calculated metamorphosis to a fascist (the term is used in a technical non-pejorative sense) state and paradigm, has not entirely escaped the attention of experts in the field, such as Jasper Becker, former Beijing Bureau Chief for the South China Morning Post and author of The Chinese.

Becker has published a detailed analysis of China's political metamorphosis where he points out: "Realizing that the demise of communism deprived the CCP of an ideology and a reason to exist, Jiang (Zemin), Hu (Jintao), and their peers are quietly remaking China into a fascist state bearing a striking resemblance to its '20s predecessors... the kind of highly nationalistic right-wing dictatorship that emerged in the '20s and '30s in Germany, Spain, Japan, Romania, and most notably Italy. Since at least the late '80s CCP leaders have instituted economic programs recalling fascist ideas of 'planned capitalism.' To complement its economic policies, the CCP has developed a neo-fascist political program of mass rallies, nationalist indoctrination, and party control over private lives."8

At the moment many Americans of both liberal and conservative stripe are rightly concerned about the erosion of fundamental American civil liberties in the wake of the Bush administration's "war on terror." Though 9/11 was certainly of portentous significance in this respect, it might more accurately be viewed as one moment, albeit a very important one, in the long course of the cynical undermining of human freedom that has been going on for sometime now. A smaller but yet significant milestone in this process might include Bill Clinton's de-linking of human rights and the China trade, while the oft-repeated and self-serving statements of business leaders and politicians that democracy was unsuited to Chinese cultural values, that human rights were overrated, and the overall silence of intellectuals and the public in this regard certainly provided the requisite ambiance. In the end, the object lesson Americans may derive from this period in their history is that when you fail to demonstrate adequate concern for the freedom of others, you embolden and empower those who want to take yours away.

A version of this was presented as a conference paper at the "Consumer Awareness Symposium" held at Brigham Young University on November 13, 2003.

1 Richard Bernstein & Ross H. Munro, The Coming Conflict With China, Knopf, New York, 1997, p. 130.
2 David Phinny, "Toys for Tots and Profits," ABCNews.com, Special Report.
3 Kenneth de Graffenreid (ed.), The Cox Report: The Unanimous and Bipartisan Report of the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China, Regenry, Washington, D.C., 1999.
4 David Shambaugh, Modernizing China's Military: Progress, Problems, and Prospects, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002, pp. 188-89.
5 It is important to note here that the increasing tendency of Chinese workers to go on strike in spite of terrible consequences, clearly demonstrates their willingness to make hard economic and personal sacrifices for their legitimate rights. Therefore, the oft-repeated contention in the West that the Chinese people are satisfied living in a repressive state and only interested in their immediate economic well being is demonstrably untrue. If desperate workers are going on strike, without the benefit of unions and strike funds, and when striking is illegal and punishable to the extreme extent of the law, then it is evident that workers in China will approve and endorse any action from the free world (like an international boycott of Chinese products) that though, possibly causing temporary hardships, is clearly aimed in the long run at helping Chinese workers to secure the rights enjoyed by labor in the free world.
6 "How Wal-Mart is Remaking our World," The Hightower Lowdown, Vol. 4, No. 4, April 2002.
7 Wal-Mart Dungeon in China, Qin Shi Handbag Factory, National Labor Committee.
8 Jasper Becker, "Mussolini Redux," The New Republic Online, June 23, 2003.


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