Q. I have been reading that China is moving towards democracy. Won't a boycott of Chinese products impact negatively on this progress?
A. Optimistic reports of slow but steady progress towards democratic governance in China are, in the main, based on self-serving analysis or outright wishful thinking. One "proof" usually offered of China's democratization is the decision in 2002 by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to include businessmen into its ranks. What that has accomplished ccording to a New York Times report on the 16th Party Congress in Beijing by Joseph Kahn has been "to transform the world's last major left-wing dictatorship into the world's last major right-wing dictatorship."1 Furthermore, what many reports failed to point out was that nearly all the leading financial, business and industrial figures in China were invariably the close relatives, sons, daughters, nephews, wives, etc., of China's highest-ranking Communist Party officials.
The New York Times also printed an op-ed on the 16th Congress by Bao Tong, the highest party official imprisoned for opposing the Tiananmen Square crackdown now released but living under constant police surveillance. Mr. Tong declared that it would be "irrational" to think that China was moving in the direction of democracy. He asks: "What difference does it make if older authoritarians are replaced by younger, technically trained or even capitalist authoritarians? Not much."2
Jasper Becker has published a detailed analysis of China's political metamorphosis in a recent article. This is his theory on the genesis of this transformation: "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."3
Whether change from Communism to Fascism can be regarded as an improvement is, of course, a matter of one's political inclination, but it certainly cannot be considered a step towards democracy. China has not met even the minimum of requirements to qualify for acceptance as a democracy, even on the somewhat dubious level of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, which has a parliament and an opposition party, though a much-harried one. There is a bottom line in these things as Jasper Becker points out: "China is now one of the last countries in the world without a functioning parliament. The National People's Congress does exist but it has no building of its own, no permanent staff or offices, and it assembles for just ten days a year. During the rest of the year only members of the Standing Committee, which is made up entirely of senior Party officials, meet."4
Even the uncomplimentary label of "debating society" usually attached to toothless assemblies or powerless political organizations, cannot be applied to China's Congress, as no debates of any kind are tolerated from the members of that body. A Western correspondent at the Party Congress reported that the discussions sounded like recitations and the main speech of the president "was notable mostly for its vagueness." He mentioned further that "the 2,114 people chosen to decide the party's future at this congress are not debating those issues (who's going to rule). Instead, they met this weekend in small groups, sat in places assigned to them based on rank, and read from reports that expressed fealty to senior party leaders."5
A clear indication of China's steady regression into anti-democratic authoritarianism is evident in its premeditated step-by-step campaign to undermine Hong Kong's autonomy and democracy that was guaranteed by the Joint Declaration by Britain and China in 1984. Beijing has not hesitated to resort to the tactics of the Cultural Revolution in denouncing democracy advocates in the territory as "clowns" and "traitors."6 Over the years, journalists, radio talk-show hosts and other voices of democracy in Hong Kong have been systematically harassed and intimidated with threats of violence and death-threats in an increasingly "suffocating" political atmosphere. Finally on April 26, 2004, Beijing came out openly and declared the barring of popular elections for Hong Kong's chief executive in 2007, and ruled out any expanded use of democratic voting for the legislature in 2008. Flatly rejecting complaints by the British and U.S. government, Beijing backed up its decision with the first military show of force since the territory's transfer to China by Britain in 1997. On May 5th this year, a flotilla of eight Chinese warships: two guided missile destroyers, four guided missiles frigates and two submarines sailed slowly down Victoria harbor, choosing the most visible route across the entire length of the harbor front.7
Q. Wouldn't a boycott of Chinese products hurt the American economy? After all the economies of the two countries have now become so close and intertwined.
A. Yes, the American economy has become as dependent on import of Chinese products as it has on Saudi oil. And yes, if America were forced to give up either (or both) overnight - cold turkey - the national economy would certainly take a hit. But no one is advocating that. As with Saudi oil, it only makes sense to see that near exclusive dependence on import of Chinese products (no matter how cheap), is not a healthy habit, and that America should in both cases start looking for alternate sources for such products. And it further makes sense to ensure that such sources should, as far as possible, not originate from, and not financially benefit, countries that are openly or furtively working to undermine democracy and open society.
Q. There are labor abuses and other human rights violations in India, Mexico, Bangladesh and elsewhere. Why just pick on China?
A. Well, there are human rights violations right here in the United States too, but we are not calling for Americans to boycott their own products. In the end, it probably comes down to a question of degree, and China's human rights record is certainly an extreme one. No country in the world could be indicted with such a wide variety of horrendous and bizarre human rights abuses as China - as our book BUYING THE DRAGON'S TEETH catalogues.
A useful starting point for deciding on a particular boycott is to ask if the nation in question is a democracy or not. Mexico, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia all have human rights problems. Yet, these are also countries that have made the conscious and difficult choice to become democracies. They no doubt face enormous problems and even setbacks from time to time, but as long as they keep moving, even stumbling unsteadily, towards the goal of democracy, that is all we can ask of them at the moment. Strengthening the economy of such nations through trade could only benefit the cause of democracy worldwide. This in turn can only benefit free trade, as rule of law, transparency in government, empowered labor and a free media are probably the only ways through which a level economic playing field can eventually be created for everyone.
Q. But insisting that China observe Western concepts of democracy and human rights might be regarded as cultural arrogance. After all the Chinese have their own Confucian value system where individual freedom is not so important as hierarchy and obedience.
A. Actually the sage is on record as saying, "Let humanity be your highest standard." Confucius may not exactly have been a democrat by present-day standards but he believed in the rule of law and accountability in government. Though he believed in the necessity of hierarchy and ritual in the running of a kingdom, he also absolutely believed that princes should rule through moral authority and not by violence and oppression. An even more humanist and democratic side of Confucianism is represented in the teachings of Mencius who not only put the interests of the people above that of the ruler but even vindicated tyrannicide.
At the end of the 19th century, the neo-Confucian scholar Kang Yu Wei (1858-1927), China's first great modern reformer, came up with a radical interpretation of Confucius' teaching which shook the intellectual world of the Chinese gentry-literati. In Kang's view, Confucius was a forward looking "sage king" who saw history as a progressive unilinear development from an age of disorder where kings and emperors ruled over people, to an age of universal peace and democratic government.
Long before the seeds of Communism were first planted in China, there was a broad intellectual movement towards democracy. "Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science" represented, for the youth and intelligentsia at the turn of the century (19th to 20th) in China, the two fundamental requisites for a modern Chinese state. The founding father of the modern Chinese state, Dr. Sun Yatsen, was a democrat. His widow, Song Meiling, together with Dr. Cai Yuanpei, chancellor of Beijing National University, and the writer, Lu Xun, founded the Chinese League for the Protection of Human Rights, as early as 1930.
It cannot be overly stressed that democracy and human rights do not just represent foreign values now being forced on a reluctant Chinese society. They existed in China's political debate since the end of the 19th century, appearing never to have existed only because of the effectiveness of totalitarian propaganda in blurring the political memory of an entire nation.
The notion of a set of "Asian Values" (as Confucian values are referred to in a larger context) of hierarchy, order and tradition that places little value on freedom and democracy can be dismissed outright if we take into account a very large portion of Asia that is oddly, but invariably, overlooked in this debate, the world's largest, and arguably liveliest democracy - India.
In his book, Freedom As Development, the Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, delivers a withering critique of "Confucian values" and "Asian values." He holds up the examples of the Buddha, the Emperor Ashoka and the Moghul Emperor Akbar to demonstrate that such "Western values" as tolerance and freedom prevailed in Asia, on occasions even before they did in the West. Sen concludes, "To see Asian history in terms of a narrow category of authoritarian values does little justice to the rich varieties of thought in Asian intellectual tradition. Dubious history does nothing to vindicate dubious politics."8
Q. All the stores are flooded with "Made in China" products. How do we even begin to launch a boycott campaign?
A. It is precisely because there are so many Chinese products on the market that there is an opportunity to draw people's attention to this as a problem. The Burmese boycott faced the opposite predicament. There were so few "Made in Burma" products in Western stores that it was difficult to get people to even see the problem, much less become indignant about it. The overwhelming preponderance of "Made in China" products on store shelves nationwide demonstrate the hard fact that China is taking manufacturing jobs not only from developed countries, but even from Mexico, India, and Bangladesh - democracies where labor has certain rights. Even in poor, corrupt Cambodia, where the United Nations has managed to introduce a measure of democracy, including labor unions, and where in the last few years some international companies have set up some manufacturing units, especially in textiles and garments, jobs are now being lost to China. There is real fear among clothing manufacturers in Phnom Penh that in 2005 they could lose out to untrammeled competition from China. Although productions costs in Cambodia are far lower than most places in the world, they are nonetheless about 25 percent higher than in China, one reason being that Cambodian workers have union representation.9
A backlash against China's predatory export manufacturing started some years ago. South Korea's economic and finance minister, Jin Nyum, lamented at the end of 2001 that China was "turning itself into the world's manufacturing plant, which will suck all manufacturing facilities into it like a black hole." Newspapers from Japan to Singapore fretted that the Chinese export economy was "hollowing out" local manufacturing bases. The danger of China's export preponderance was clearly pointed out in the June 17, 2002 issue of US Business Week, in the article "When Everything Is Made In China," written by Jeffrey E. Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management. The article was vociferously condemned in major Chinese newspapers and journals.
From the beginning of 2004, we have had Lou Dobbs, the leading economic and financial expert for CNN, venting, on a near daily basis, on the loss of jobs and industries to China and other countries. In the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, a major campaign issue dominating campaign debates and media discussions was the "outsourcing" of American jobs and industries.
Q. But Chinese products are so cheap!?
So is beef from cattle that has been fed the rendered bone, offal and blood of other slaughtered cattle. The chances of your being infected with CJD (the strain of Mad Cow disease that infects humans) from eating such beef may be absolutely remote, as state agricultural experts assure us, but the chances of your losing your job because of the proliferation of "Made in China" products is unquestionably more immediate. It should perhaps be emphasized that this analogy with Mad Cow Disease has not been made facetiously. Even from a moral point of view there is an unacceptable cannibal-like aspect to the buying of cheap "Made in China" products at the expense of the misery, suffering and even death of Chinese dissidents, laogai inmates and disenfranchised labor. Furthermore, who is to gainsay that the inroad of such products has not already begun to infect the economic and political system of the free world with a strain of China's congenital despotism?
Q. The Chinese economy is so huge and apparently booming. How can we expect to make even the tiniest impression on it with our boycott?
In spite of the impressive PR job by China and its supporters, it is not exactly a secret that the Chinese economy is facing tremendous problems. Much of this has been discussed in Chapter 14, "China Does Not Play By the Usual Rules of Business" in our book BUYING THE DRAGON'S TEETH. In addition to the references cited in that chapter, Gordon G. Chang's, The Coming Collapse of China, must be mentioned. It is a compelling account of the rot in China's institutions and the forces at work that could bring about the end of the present People's Republic.
What Enron and WorldCom should have painfully taught everyone in the USA is that the volume of hype about an investment is usually in direct proportion to the chances of that venture being a scam. In the history of commerce, there has been no greater hype than that generated by the China trade.
While on the subject of economic bubbles and collapsing systems it might be noted that that on June 4, 2004, the BBC reported on the growing scale of protests and demonstrations in China, "The Ministry of Public Security says last year there were more than 58,000 'mass incidents' - the term they use to describe public protests - involving three million people: that is an increase of almost 15 percent over the year before." The figures also confirmed police sources that the protests were growing in size and number and becoming better organized. The report mentions that the protesters were largely peasants and workers. "One Western academic has warned that, when it comes to the growing unrest, China's leaders will face riskier dilemmas than at any time since the massive protests in 1989." 10
That the end of days for China's Communist dynasty is rapidly approaching is spelled out in no uncertain terms by veteran China correspondent, Bruce Gilley, in his recent book.11 Yet, convincing as Gilley's information and arguments that the regime will probably collapse before 2020, less convincing is his hope that the transition will be one to a democracy. This will happen, according to Gilley, not by popular overthrow of the regime but through gradual reforms from above, for China's elite will by then have become more public-spirited and less self-interested. Such faith in a moral elite (a/k/a reformists, pragmatists, modernists) has been the hallmark of China apologists, but recent trends in Chinese political culture point toward deepening corruption and cynicism rather than such a moral revival.
Q. I've visited Beijing and Shanghai, and frankly I didn't witness the abuses listed in the book.
You could have visited Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s and you wouldn't have seen the concentration camps and the persecution of Jews either, but it was happening all the same. What you would have seen would have been a dynamic Germany, where workers were (unlike in present-day China) getting decent wages, state healthcare, and even government subsidized holidays. Of course labor leaders were being imprisoned and executed, but as in China you wouldn't have seen it. Your eyes would instead have been dazzled by such great public projects as the world's first network of superhighways, the Autobahn, and to put the population on wheels, the "People's Car," the Volkswagon, so compact and inexpensive that the average German could afford it.
Your visit to Nazi Germany would have been, environmentally speaking, a far more pleasant experience than your China trip. In line with his personal obsession with cleanliness, the problem of pollution so concerned Hitler that he encouraged industry to work toward the complete elimination of noxious gases. Anti-pollution contrivances were already installed in some factories in the Ruhr basin, and new plants were required to construct preventive devices to avoid pollution of the waters.12 And, of course, the Berlin Olympics of 1936 was a tremendous showcase for Nazi Germany as the Beijing Olympics will most certainly be for Communist/Fascist China in 2008.
The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam said, in sad amazement, that people thought life was normal because the streetcars were running. Not only were the streetcars running during Stalin's "Great Terror," but Moscow's great subway system was being built.
Q. But we're doing everything we can already: demonstrations, protests, letter-writing campaigns. You name it we're doing it. Why should a boycott be more effective?
A. So far, much of Tibetan activism against China has been either symbolic (Tenth March parades, demonstrations, freedom concerts, peace marches, even the Beijing Olympic protest) or supplicatory (signature drives, petitions, letter-writing campaigns). Such actions have definitely been useful, drawing public attention to the Tibetan cause and sometimes even embarrassing China.
But it is imperative that we seek a course of action that not only causes direct tangible injury, loss or disadvantage to China, but one that is also unequivocally non-violent, in a dynamic Gandhian way. Right at the moment China is most sensitive to economic loss. Without being in the least bit cynical, one could assert that depriving China of trade dollars would make a more forceful and deeply felt impact on Beijing than, say for instance, causing the death of some of its citizens through violence. The Chinese leadership is doing a pretty good job of that, in any case.
Q. But all governments in Europe, the US and Asia want to do business with China. What can we do without the support of these governments?
It is precisely because of this problem that a broad, people-oriented campaign like ours can succeed. Aung San Suu Kyi said, "Sometimes it is better to have the people of the world on your side than the governments of the world." As has been stated earlier, the nonviolent but morally powerful method we have chosen will, because of its grass-roots nature, take some time to deliver results. Yet, this drawback is more than compensated for by the fact that it is a strategy that does not depend for its success on the goodwill or intercession of politicians, bankers or businessmen - people who are most susceptible to China's economic blandishments. Nevertheless, as the campaign gains public support and media attention, politicians will jump on the bandwagon. They wouldn't be politicians if they didn't.
Q. We've done boycotts and 'Toycotts' before and they didn't work. Why should the boycott work now?
A. The boycotts organized by the US Tibet Committee and the Canada Tibet Committee did work. In fact, they worked much better than expected. These campaigns did not fail but were stopped because the Tibetan government-in-exile hoped that by adopting a policy of "constructive engagement" with China, Beijing would agree to negotiations. This has, not surprisingly, failed to happen. The Milarepa Foundation also started a boycott campaign but withdrew when it was criticized for hurting the livelihood of ordinary Chinese people and of "China bashing."
Q. Well, isn't the boycott going to hurt the Chinese people? Isn't it, in fact, "China bashing?"
China bashing, or rather "Chinese bashing" is what the Communist Party leadership in Beijing did when it ordered T-69 tanks to roll over the bodies of thousands of peaceful Chinese demonstrators. "China bashing" is what State Security personnel are doing right now - beating and torturing peaceful worshippers, democracy activists, and women who want to protect their unborn babies. What our campaign is doing is "China Aiding." This is, first and foremost, refusing to participate in the enrichment of Communist Party leaders and cadres (who directly or through a variety of proxies) own over 95 percent of China's economy, and the ruthless and unashamed exploitation of Chinese prisoners, workers and farmers. "China Aiding" is furthermore showing genuine concern for the fate of wretched Chinese prisoners suffering in forced labor camps, and expressing solidarity with Chinese workers and farmers struggling for their rights against a brutal and inhuman dictatorship
Q: Isn't it a fact that most "Made in China" products are bought by working-class people or minorities like Blacks and Hispanics, the kind of people who are least interested in Tibet or human rights issues?
That is elitist talk. Of course, it is only sensible to introduce the campaign to such people (or anyone else for that matter) on a note that is familiar or important to that person or group. For instance, with Blacks it may be a good idea to discuss Archbishop Desmond Tutu's or Nelson Mandela's views on economic boycotts. With Hispanics and Latinos, one could, perhaps, start the discussion with accounts of the persecution of Catholics in China and the plight of Chinese bishops in forced labor camps. In rural America, one could publicize the plight of Protestant pastors and churches persecuted by China's state security, and also the issue of "forced abortions." Of course, it can be further argued that such sections of American society suffer most from inroads of Chinese goods, when industry declines in this country and decent-paying manufacturing jobs grow fewer every day.
There is a charming photograph from Gandhi's visit to England in 1931. Wrapped in a woolen shawl and looking happy but somewhat bashful, he is surrounded by tough-looking but friendly female mill workers in Lancashire who are giving him a rousing welcome. These were people driven to unemployment by Gandhi's boycott of British textiles. Yet, they are cheering the Mahatma and raising their fists in the air in solidarity with him. It is outrageously condescending, to say the least, for privileged people to assume that the working class will not respond to overtures about human rights and freedom, but only their self-interests.
Q. Could we tie-in the "Made in China" boycott with the boycott of French wines and products that seems to have started in the USA?
A. Thane Peterson, columnist for Business Week, rightly maintains that "boycotting French and German products is silly. If Americans really want to make a political statement at the mall, try avoiding Chinese goods." He elaborates on the issue: "Targeting France and Germany is also anti-democratic. The establishment of a strong democracy in Germany is one of the greatest accomplishments of the post-World War II era. American soldiers didn't fight and die in World War II to establish lapdog governments in Europe. The goal was to promote freedom and democracy - which, whether you agree with their specific policies or not, is what we now have in France and Germany."
"China, however, is another kettle of fish. It's ruled by a cabal of aging, unelected autocrats. It jails or deports dissidents who agitate for democracy or openly believe in religions deemed unacceptable to the government, such as Falun Gong. It's trying to crush Tibet, a peaceful Buddhist nation, and would dearly like to take control of Taiwan, a long-time American ally. It employs prison labor and forces abortions on many of its own citizens. To my mind, China also represents a major economic threat to the U.S."13
However, in light of recent reports of the French conducting joint naval exercises with the Chinese navy, and even otherwise cozying up with Beijing in general, it is perhaps, not morally incumbent on us to make too great an effort at dissuading those calling for a boycott of French products.
Q. Isn't it more practical to focus on "specific targets" like the World Bank or a corporation doing business with China than undertake a broad boycott?
A. In any discussion on boycotts there is a good deal of resistance to a boycott that is not targeted at specific companies. The logic being that targeting a specific company is more realistic and more immediately achievable than a broad campaign. But is it? A longtime American observer of the Tibetan scene put it very succinctly in a discussion:
"People keep saying that they loved the Holiday Inn campaign. But what kind of victory was that? What goal did it serve other than to remove a hotel from Lhasa? To what extent did it do anything to cause the Chinese to reverse their oppressive policies in Tibet? All it did was allow those on the outside to pat themselves on the back for a job well done."
In the military, it is axiomatic that "special operations" are only useful within the context of a broader campaign. One is not saying here that Support Groups should not target specific companies or financial institutions doing business with China, but that such specific operations only have meaning and will benefit the cause if there is a broader economic campaign to which it can contribute. Otherwise, such target-specific projects, by themselves, serve only as symbolic gestures
Targeting individual companies to resolve the Tibetan issue is a bit like attempting to empty an ocean with a spoon. The boycott campaign on the other hand is not about defeating companies or corporations one by one. It is rather about creating a "chain-reaction" of moral outrage among consumers all over the world against China's crimes.
Q. After 9/11 and the Iraq War, nobody's interested in China's human rights violations or Tibetan freedom. If you had a terrorist angle to tie in with your boycott campaign maybe you might get a response. Could you think up one?
A. There is no need to make up or invent anything here. Just read the chapter on "World's Largest Supplier of Nuclear Weapons to Rogue States" in our book BUYING THE DRAGON'S TEETH. There is every reason and more to boycott "Made in China" on just this one issue.
Q. But I am already involved in major campaigns for the Tibetan cause. Is it really necessary for me to participate in one more action as this?
A. Anyone involved in the Tibetan struggle, in any way, must absolutely undertake a personal boycott of Chinese products. Every time we buy a "Made in China" product we are doing business with China. For an activist to permit this in his daily life, while loudly denouncing American banks or multinational corporations for doing business with China would be the ultimate hypocrisy.
1 Joseph Kahn, "China's Congress of Crony Capitalists," The New York Times, November 19, 2002.
2 Bao Tong, "Faking Reforms at the Communist Party Congress," The New York Times, November 23, 2002.
3 Jasper Becker, "Mussolini Reduxm," The New Republic Online, June 23, 2003.
4 Jasper Becker, The Chinese, Free Press, 2000.
5 Joseph Kahn, "At Chinese Congress, Little Debate But Lots of Picture-Taking," The New York Times, November 11, 2002.
6 Keith Bradsher, "Hong Kong Protesters Say China Is Trying to Stifle Democracy," The New York Times, April 2, 2004.
7 Keith Bradsher, "Flotilla Is Beijing's Message To an Unsettled Hong Kong," The New York Times, May 6, 2004.
8 Amartya Sen, Development As Freedom, Anchor Books, New York, 1999, pp. 231-248.
9 James Brooke, "A Year of Worry for Cambodia's Garment Makers," The New York Times, January 24, 2004.
10 Louisa Lim, China Protest on the Rise," BBC NEWS, June 8, 2004, 10:21:20 GMT
11 Bruce Gilley, China's Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004.
12 John Toland, Adolf Hitler, Doubleday, New York, 1976, p. 403.
13 Thane Peterson, "Consumers Strike a Blow for Democracy," Business Week, March 18, 2003.