Tag Archives: China

Letting China be China: Retelling a Tale of Two Storms

Probably a good place to start this is with The Wall Street Journal comparing Hong Kong’s recent typhoon to Beijing’s flood, under the headline Hong Kong vs. Beijing: A Tale of Two Storms:

At least 37 people died in fierce rains that lashed China’s capital city over the weekend, prompting flooding in various neighborhoods and structures to collapse in the downpour. Many residents were highly critical of how the city’s infrastructure failed to successfully weather the storm, with many asking why the city, with its all its investments in dazzling Olympic facilities, could still experience such deadly floods. By contrast in Hong Kong, while a handful of scattered flooding incidents were reported, Vicente appeared to pass through without doing any serious damage.

Let’s leave aside that these were two very different storms. Though wet, tropical cyclones are mostly wind events and most damage comes from storm surge. Hong Kong never went over an Amber rainstorm signal during the recent typhoon. That’s the lowest of the three rainstorm signals.

Let’s instead talk about comparisons and expectations.

Flooding in Yunnan, photo by Dennis Kruyt http://www.flickr.com/photos/phantagom/

Before I left to teach English in China, I sat on the porch with one of my best friends who had recruited me into the job and was trying to cover every base, so to speak, of what to expect in China. I tried getting a fifteen-minute Chinese lesson and walked away with “ni hao” and “xie xie.” I also asked her what her best piece of advice was: let China be China.

I quizzed her on what she meant by that. “Don’t judge China by American standards. Also, you’re not going to change anything. Just accept it for what it is,” she told me. And it was great advise. I’ve also come to understand it works both ways – don’t judge China by American standards, but also be careful not to expect China to be like other “third world”/developing countries. I had at least two teachers in my employ who flew into Shenzhen expecting rice fields and conical hats. I personally expected a police state and endless grey factories. Beyond the superficial, there are a lot of similar issues that look and behave differently in China than they do elsewhere.

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Filed under Capacity, China, Uncategorized

[Open] Letter to the Editor for the South China Morning Post

One of the principal lessons we should impart on this Establishment Day is the value of Hong Kong’s diversity. Thus, it is of great concern to me when I hear our president, Mr Hu Jintao, say that Hong Kong’s political leaders should oppose foreign forces interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. The colonialists packed up and left fifteen years ago. The “foreign forces” in Hong Kong today are entrepreneurs, teachers, students, business leaders, writers, and employees that want to make Hong Kong a better place for everybody. Even what is “local” in Hong Kong has a dozen shades of Punti, Teochew, Toyshan, Hakka and multi-generation non-Chinese families. This diversity of differences mesh and merge to give this a city a vibrancy in economy, character, and culture that no other city in the People’s Republic has. I left the mainland for Hong Kong two years ago in part because I would always be “foreign” – always a “them.” In Hong Kong, I am a small part of the “us.” Being different here is normal. Mr. Hu needn’t pit citizens against each other to make those of Chinese descent identify more as mainland Chinese, a task they empirically fail at more each year. Both Mr Hu and other “foreign forces” can all be part of the “us” coming to a big table with small pieces to complete the puzzles Asia’s World City faces. In this regard, leaders from Zhongnanhai would be better advised to come to Hong Kong with fresh ideas during their next visit instead of the overt displays of force – in rhetoric and ceremony – that have defined this trip.


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South China Sea Legal Differences Redux

After my original post, I learned through comments and Twitter discussions that I got the Philippines position a little bit wrong and that the legality is even more nuanced. So the Philippines does claim the islands as sovereign territory, but claims them as a “rock.” A “rock” is different than an “island” in the UN Law of the Sea – a distinction I would have not thought of. Islands must have an “economic life of their own” if they have no permanent human population. Unlike an island, rocks get no extension of Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ). Though Taylor Fravel says that if the rock still peaks over the water during high tide, they can get a 12 mile radius territorial sea.

What makes all of this interesting is that, technically, a court could rule that the “rocks” are Chinese but most the water around it belong to the Philippines. What it really does, though, is significantly weaken China’s case for the South China Sea claims. Even if they were to “belong” to China, their economic rights via the EEZ wouldn’t be nearly as large as they’re claiming because most of the shoals, sandbars, and reefs they claim would just be “rocks.”

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Reflections on the Fourth Anniversary of the Sichuan Earthquake

Four years ago I was working on a Master of Education paper (critiquing OLPC, I think) when I saw a headline about an earthquake outside of Chengdu. A little later I went out to a Lanzhou lamian restaurant (often called ‘Muslim noodles” by expats) and read internet updates on my tiny Nokia candybar phone while trying to communicate with the restaurant staff the enormity of what was happening. Even in the first hour it was clear how huge this was and I think even then the death toll was estimated at more than 10,000. Now it stands at between eighty to ninety thousand dead, but we’ll never know because the Chinese government refuses to make the list public.

I had already volunteered to work with a Chengdu-based international NGO that summer on a minority education project deep in the mountains of Sichuan with the Yizu. I had met their director at the 2007 Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong conference. I received word shortly after the earthquake that they were going to concentrate all of their resources on the earthquake and that I was more than welcome to come out and help with that instead. And so it was to be that I would come in early June and volunteer with them for a month.

It was an interesting time in China’s development. The lead-up to the Olympics was kicking off and I think everybody was expecting greater openness and political freedom than ever before. This was China’s “coming out” party, so to speak. But it seems like everything got off track, and quickly. First was it was a Tibetan race riot against the Han in Lhasa followed by a violent crackdown. Then came Chinese anger at reactions to that crackdown, including an incident in France where an Olympic torch runner was knocked over. Thus was born anti-CNN.com and students wearing t-shirts to class that read, in English, “stop Western media lies!” It was probably the only time in my four years in the mainland that I truly felt uncomfortable being there because of my nationality. At a lunch with other foreign teachers my boss at the time told us, “I think I can say for the first time that I don’t like foreigners.”

Then the earthquake came and seemed to get things back on track, if only for a moment. China opened her doors and relief and sympathy poured in from around the globe. But things quickly changed, again. “Tofu” buildings became the story as we learned that terribly built schools collapsed on top of students. There were pictures in the NY Times showing a collapsed school when everything around it, including a newer school for wealthier (often cadre) students, stood unharmed. NGOs were restricted. Activists and the parents of dead students were harassed and arrested. I forget who it was, but while I was in Chengdu one dissident asking questions about the dead children was arrested and placed in front of a TV and forced to watch the rescue relief broadcasts until he “regained his patriotism” while I was there. I think I was also there when Ai Weiwei got beat up by the Chengdu police for trying to collect the names of the dead children (whose birthdays now dominate his Twitter feed).

When I got out there I was noticing some weird quirks about the program I was volunteering with. It seemed altogether kind of pointless and we were working in relatively unaffected areas. By unaffected, I mean the village only had one or two dead when villages a few miles away had deaths in the hundreds or thousands. I would see rich opportunities for impact but was often told “those are government problems.” Then something crazy happened: the government of Dujiangyan shut the NGOs program down for a few days. The problem? They wanted to launch an investigation on them because I was with them. And what was the problem with me? I was white.

I went back and wrote my Master’s thesis on my experiences there. I tried to build a theory explaining what I saw. The results are now published in the International Journal of Educational Development as Disaster, civil society and education in China: A case study of an independent non-government organization working in the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake (download here). The argument I make was that the earthquake can really be seen as the beginning of a much larger crackdown on civil society that continues today.

One of the things I learned, and go to length on in the paper, was how authoritarianism worked in the real world. I think as an American I originally came at China’s authoritarianism from a rule of law perspective – that limits to freedoms were clear “lines in the sand” and came through law. A sort of “thou shalt not speak ill of or compete with thy leaders.” What I learned in my research was how implicitly embedded power relations were. Independent NGOs weren’t illegal, for instance, they just weren’t allowed to legally register and almost everything they did was illegal (especially fundraising). That type of power was a lot more effective because it seeped into every decision the NGO I studied made. The “lines in the sand” are a lot more personal than legal. Anger the wrong powerful person and a world of legal pain would come down on you. A court could suddenly start asking  how, exactly, did $100,000 get in your personal bank account from an international wire transfer and why didn’t you pay taxes on it? Are you a spy or just a fraud?

And all of this saddens me. I wish that wasn’t the “take away” from my study. The earthquake was a great opportunity for the development of civil society in China that was never fully actualized. There were amazing networks that popped up, like 512ngo.org. There was great coordination. Civil society and NGOs were “crossing a river by feeling the stones” – and a lot of stones had just landed in front of them from which to learn how to get to the other side.  The other side being working in harmony with the Communist Party to get things done, bringing issues to attention and resolving them together. I truly believe that the Party and civil society don’t need to be as antagonistic of each others’ existence as the Party assumes. I think rules can be written into law that separate the very different functions of an education and a human rights NGO. Instead, where most governments demand a monopoly on violence the Party demands a monopoly on political association – and everything is political in a country where the Party infiltrates every ‘legitimate’ non-commercial organization. And so those issues sit, simmering in the background.


Filed under China

Legal Differences Between Claims to the South China Sea

[Please see a revised version of this here]

I commented to a friend a few days ago that there was something “natural” looking to the Philippines territorial claims map, while the Chinese map looked distinctly phallic – it just jutted out into the ocean with seemingly no other logic than “mine!” I was digging around Wikipedia trying to understand the history of the different claims and came to an interesting realization. There’s a reason for that: the Philippines isn’t claiming more than what what most would already recognize as the Philippines.

The legal basis for each country’s claim is different, which is why the maps look so different. The Chinese are claiming Scarborough Shoal (and the Spratley’s, and the Paracels, and every other uninhabited rock and reef in the South China Sea) as integral parts of China’s territory. They’re as Chinese as the neighborhoods inside third ring of Beijing. Each island then has a 12 mile territorial claim around it and an Economic Exclusion Zone extending up to 200km outwards, but usually stopping at the halfway point between it and another country’s territory.

The Philippines is making a much more subtle claim. They’re claiming the Shoal and the Spratley’s they fall under Philippine jurisdiction rather than being a “part” of the Philippines, per se (though it does seem they’ve made that claim at times). They’re arguing they have the same legal rights to the shoals as they would an offshore oil field. They claim this under terra nullius – that the islands don’t belong to anybody. They are, after all, just some rocks standing above the waves. So while China is claiming “mine!”, the Philippines claim is more nuanced “not yours” to her neighbors. They’re nobody’s rocks but they’re more ours than yours. They’re also not claiming anything more specific than open ocean 200 miles out from their coast.

In so much as the shoal is a point of interest it is a Chinese interest. It’s just part of the sea to the Philippines. If the Philippines were claiming these as territories like the Chinese were, then the EEZ would jet out from each of these islands another 200 miles and their territorial waters would also cover much of the South China Sea, much as the Chinese map does.

A big difference is that an EEZ is still “international waters” in a lot of ways. Ships, even military ships, are allowed to sail through it without permission. A countries claims would seem to end at the right to use resources from the area. Think of it this way: if some enemy fleet were sailing towards your country you wouldn’t have the right to sink it until they crossed the twelve mile line. Thus, China’s claim of the shoal being territorial waters make claims of Filipino transgressions technically more provocative – on par with enemy ships sailing around inside the Pearl River Delta. Even if the Philippines did have a powerful military to counter Chinese claims, the Chinese sending a fleet to the area is a lot less provocative for them than the other way around.


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Lacking Danger in the South China Sea

I’ve tried a few times putting these thoughts on Twitter but I think it doesn’t fit the format. My analysis of the recent situation is relatively short, but not conducive to the medium. Here goes:

The first thing to understand is that, for a variety of reasons, the Philippines has almost no military projection power. Projection meaning being able to do things that are not on Philippine soil. Their air force consists of a few Vietnam-war era  recon planes and their navy’s flagship is a former US Coast Guard cutter built when Kennedy was president. The most powerful weapon in its inventory is a 3″ diameter gun. Meaning, it would be outclassed and sunk by even the meekest time traveling World War I warship.

So now there’s a war of words. China, apparently, is sending a small armada to deal with the Philippines. One of the Beijing Twitterati commented that, “sentiment on Weibo seems to overwhelmingly favor using force to solve Philippines South China Sea issue. Either the Philippines caves or there will be blood.” His rationale was that, the “government [is] already in midst of credibility crisis. Showing weakness, especially to a ‘little country’ like Philippines over sovereignty issues not an option.”

I understand where this is coming from. And in almost any other context this would make sense. But I don’t think this makes sense in context to the Philippines precisely because of that military issue. “There will be blood” implies combat. But combat with what where? And what, precisely, is the Philippine supposed to “cave” on?

So first, what is there for the Philippines to “cave” on? I only see three things: claiming the shoal as their own, patrolling the area, and harassing Chinese fishermen. An armada wouldn’t be able to stop the claims unless it went on to burn down Malacañang. Regime change and diplomacy are the only two ways to change the position of a recalcitrant foreign government. An armada could (and would) temporally stop the second and third issues. But then they’d just start again a few weeks or months later. It’s a soft, adaptive issue that can disappear and reappear at will.

His analysis would make more sense if there were Filipino marines on one of those reefs. They either move or they get shot at. There’s a pressure point in which military force can be allowed to work either through force or intimidation. But I don’t see any such fixed pressure point in those three issues. There’s nothing here that an armada can permanently change even if it went in with guns blazing. The Chinese armada will arrive and float around and… float around. The solo ‘blue water’ Filipino ship will wisely keep a distance. The Gregorio del Pilar is not going to charge into a 21st century fleet with 19th century weapons in its first year of commission.

Which leads to the most important point – I don’t see any way the Chinese could draw blood without wrecking three decades of careful diplomacy. They would be firing guns or missiles to stop a patrol, as the Philippine government has already demonstrated that it will back down during a dispute over illegal fishermen. It wouldn’t be a “war” or “combat.” If it rose to that level it it would just be a “sinking” and the entire event could last less than five minutes.

It would be cold-blooded murder and an international incident on par with North Korea’s unprovoked sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. But the difference is the world expects more of China than it does North Korea because China has worked so hard to build up it’s image of a “peacefully rising” giant. It doesn’t matter what the domestic pressure on Sina Weibo is. The international damage would take a decade to undo.

What’s more, it wouldn’t accomplish anything. It wouldn’t resolve the dispute. The Philippines would demand justice and wouldn’t waver on the core issue.  It would probably make Southeast Asian neighbors turn even more towards the US to form alliances against China. It would probably spark a naval arms race that the Chinese would lose. The US has a lot of old but competent ships it could ‘donate’ to its threatened friends.

But that’s not going to happen because combat isn’t going to happen. There’s not a thing to be gained from it and everything to lose.

The final point is that I think this is happening because the Philippines is so weak. The Chinese government can beat the war drums all they want, and as loud as they want, and no war is going to happen. It’s akin to bullying someone in a wheelchair that you know can’t punch back. Conversely, if the Chinese government beat war drums too loud against Vietnam or Japan things might actually get out of hand. If the PLA Navy sent a fleet to a disputed body of water with either of those countries, those countries would send their own boats out to counter them.

That would be a dangerous situation. This is not.

A end note is that this analysis only applies to China and the Philippines in the South China Sea today. Not the South China Sea in general, or China and the US, or a potentially more powerful Philippines in the future.


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iPloitation: What Does It Mean to be Exploited in the iPad Age?

For the free-market oriented China-watcher, the three arguments usually come out in regards to factory workers. The first is that the factory workers are usually better off with the work than they would be without it. This was the thrust of Nick Krisftof’s controversial essay “Where Sweatshops are a Dream.” Second, factory workers, for the most part, want more working hours instead of more free time. My objection isn’t that it’s not true  – it is, and anyone with experience in China knows this.

I’m upset about how fundamentally normal exploitation has become in our discourse. Chinese factory workers don’t want to work more hours, they need more take-home pay for themselves and their families. If they have to work 28 days a week, 14 hours a day to get it they’ll do it. But making that the headline of a story has as much merit as writing the headline, “sex-trafficked prostitutes want more clients.” There’s nothing meaningful that can be taken from these statements that doesn’t imply we shouldn’t be shoveling more work on them – as they wish. Instead, we need to be finding ways that empower worker voices that don’t set up binary options like these surveys (do you want less money or more of the same?) and doesn’t require the literary assistance of Mr. Daisy. We also need a post-Pareto understanding of what exploitation means.

The China Context

A few years ago I was teaching a course on globalization and development in Shenzhen. In what was probably one of my most interesting settings for such a class, we had large windows out of our fifth floor classroom looking down on a unique construction site. The city government wanted to build a high-tech industrial zone next to its polytechnic college. The problem was that there was a mountain where they wanted the factories to be.

From that vantage point we could see hundreds of mingong, the Chinese word for sub-blue collar workers, scattered around a lunar landscape blowing up and removing a mountain bit by bit. Several times a day the windows facing the construction site would shake as they set off dynamite to bring another cascade of rock down.

In two consecutive classes, I brought up the issue of exploitation. The first was when I covered the basic neo-Marxist critique of modern economics. A curious part of that class was that when I asked if any student could summarize Marx, none could. This despite all of them having had forced politics classes teaching “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, “Theory of the Three Represents,” “Scientific Socialism” and other tropes Zhongnanhai invents every decade. After explaining the classic Marxist definition of exploitation, I pointed outside and asked, “is that exploitation?” Almost all of them answered no. I tried playing the Story of Stuff and met with the same results.

Variations of “this is China” and “there are too many people in China” came from the students. Many of them made comments that showed they internalized these ideas. They were graduating from a low-tier school and would be competing with students from higher-tier schools. They expected to chiku (eat bitter, a Chinese term for hardship) after graduation. Those who didn’t graduate even high school, like those workers, would have to chi even more ku. Despite it’s recent rise in total wealth, Chinese GDP per capita sits alongside Angola and Jamaica. It might be the second largest pie in the world, but a fifth of the world’s population was eating from it. The only way for my students to justify getting a bigger bite of that pie than the mingong was to also allow for people above them to get a bigger bite too.

But did the fact they came from substantially poorer areas that systematically excluded most students from a quality education play any role? “This is China,” they responded. Indeed, it is China and exploitation is prolific. Merriam-Webster’s defines exploitation as “to make use of meanly or unfairly for one’s own advantage.” Exploitation usually isn’t spoken of today, I think, because of the idea of Pareto efficiency and optimality in rational market theory. Essentially, people won’t undertake a transaction where they come out losing more than they would if they didn’t. This is the essential idea that a worker in a sweatshop is either coming out the same as other options (Pareto efficient) or better than other options (Pareto optimal). For a high-level discussion of the problem with these assumptions, see the work that won Joseph Stiglitz a Nobel Prize in economics.

For the purposes it’s being used for here, it can be knocked down pretty easily with a thought experiment or two. I’ll use an example of someone I actually knew to set-up the experiment before going into wild fictional speculation. Samantha was impregnated by her boyfriend when she was 13. She was legally married to him by the age of 14. He was a terrible husband and they lived in squalor. Even though they were in America, they had no trash service and sometimes had no electricity. Their yard was covered with their own trash. [Begin fiction] The husband grew physically and mentally abusive with time. Eventually, Samantha ran away. She wound up living on the streets and was eating out of dumpsters for food. At the end of her first month on the streets she was offered housing, food, and clothing (though not a salary) in exchange for a contract filming pornography six days a week for the next six months. If she chooses to quit at any point, she’ll be immediately returned to the same place she was found minus the new clothes. At the end of the filming she’d be given $2000 to help her settle into a new life.

Is this or is this not exploitation?

In rational market theory, it is not. She made a free choice to film the movies and her situation was, by many measures, objectively better – thus making it Pareto optimal because both Samantha and the pornographer are better off with the contract than without it. The contract might well be legal in many countries and American states. A closer look at the contract, though, shows that she’s essentially an indentured (sex) servant.

Aside from how you feel about the morality of pornography, is it fair? I think almost everyone would agree that it isn’t. Samantha would not have agreed to that contract if it weren’t for a horrible situation that was mostly not of her making. Much of her situation was institutional. Upper-middle class white kids where I grew up don’t get pregnant at 13 or 14 with any regularity. They don’t live in trailers without trash service or electricity. Police there arrest eighteen year olds who prey on pre-teens. Fifteen miles away in Green Cove Springs, where I worked at McDonald’s with this eighteen year old mother of a five year old, these situations are a lot more common for a lot of complex reasons (her mother lived next door and worked with us and, so far as I could tell, saw nothing awful about the situation).


I’m also reminded of a quote from a Benjamin Barber book;

 [We are] seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but the power is in the determination of what’s on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.

If one’s choice is sex work or living on the streets, that’s not much of a choice, is it? So what of Chinese construction workers or the Foxconn workers who build iPads? For your typical factory worker, it’s a choice of factories, the service industry, or back to the farm. I’ll speak of the latter in a moment, but within those the factory and service industry jobs, for wages, it’s a choice of working 70 hours a week or 50. 28 days a month or 25.

At the spa where my wife and I used to get massages, the masseuses would get roughly 13rmb for every 40 we paid to the cashier and they only got paid when they had customers. Apple is thought to pay between 1-3% of the final retail price of an iPhone on wages at the pre-retail level. I’m not a business student or a businessman, but I think it’s an extremely difficult argument to make that Apple couldn’t afford to even double the pay at the bottom and still have a healthy profit. In fact, a recent New York Times story was about how their most difficult choice lately was where to spend their $100 billion in cash. Sending bonuses down the commodity chain was never an option.

I’m arguing that it is explicitly the case that (a) companies have a choice to pay more without threatening the survival of their business, and (b) that most workers in bad work situations have few meaningfully better choices but that almost all of the work is Pareto optimal. Yes, workers are usually are “better off” ways that they value but that the situation is built of institutional unfairness where almost any option is better. In my fictional case of Samantha, it is only the absolute clarity of her background situation and choices available that make the exploitation clear to the average reader. As I want to show in more detail, I don’t think the average factory worker is coming from a much better situation as Samantha.

The Institutional Context

The argument that exploitation is rampant, if not the bedrock of our economic order, only makes sense in context to the prevailing conditions that workers are coming from. My example of Samantha might seem clear to a lot of readers: she was poor, suffered misfortune, was victimized by common gender issues in development (i.e., early pregnancy to an older, dominating, often abusive spouse), and the things that went wrong in her life happened before she was old enough to have much agency over them.

Undoubtedly, factory workers are in an analogous situation – meaning, they’re in bad jobs because they came from poor places. I don’t like the term poverty, so let’s use a better terms: marginalized and vulnerable. They are intuitionally marginalized in ways that make it look like the purpose of the education system is to create a pliant (if not grateful), low-skilled, cheap labor force. Less than 2% of rural Chinese students make to tertiary education. Because they are marginalized so effectively, they are vulnerable. I find Mark Mason’s argument that school systems are often “designed to fail students” persuasive.

An education system deliberately designed for failure may seem a contradiction, but the policy ensured this through the desperately poor resourcing of black education. Black teachers [in South Africa] were under-qualified and overworked: in rundown schools with no electricity, no water, hardly any desks, and virtually no textbooks or stationery, they often had to deal with classes of up to 80 or 100 students, almost all from poverty-stricken backgrounds. Authoritarian teaching styles, dominated by transmission modes of teaching and rote learning of content, were consequently the order of the day.

This would only be a slight exaggeration of the educational conditions most mingong are coming from. The larger point though was that they’re not supposed to make it through to college, as there’s already too many of those. While South Africa might have chosen skin color to sort and brand students, the Chinese system uses the hukou to sort rural students from urban students. It doesn’t matter what changes you make to the gaokao, it will remain a “neutral” instrument to sort students by social class, at least at the aggregate level. The few poor rural students who actually take the test will almost always fail it. Most of them are getting swept up in these factories in what has become the largest peacetime migration in human history.

And what will have to be another post, the rural context most of these workers come from needs to be explored in detail. It is not, as many like to argue, that farms are simply boring and cannot sustain livelihoods. Most governments have an active agenda to suppress food prices, which help the urban poor at the expense of the rural poor. The Green Revolution, despite its rhetoric, was never meant to help poor farmers. It helps large landowners and urban factory workers and slum-dwellers. As a few hours in Manila or Jakarta will attest, it’s often decided by the rural poor that moving to the slum is a better idea than involuntarily being at the ‘helping’ end of an intervention to feed slum-dwellers and prop-up cheap industrial labor. The cheaper food is, the less you have to pay workers, the more competitive your labor prices…

Further, the nature of the current development paradigm makes it almost impossible to be a subsistence smallholder farmer. Instead of being public services, health care and education come with fees despite the numerous laws and UN declarations for “free and compulsory basic education”. Paying fees requires growing cash crops. Cash crops leave you dependent on and exposed to the wild swings of global markets. The price of rice, for instance, has hit a twenty-year high and a twenty-year low in the space of four years.

Who to Blame and What to Do About It

The first time I heard an example of the fragmented nature of postmodern ethics, it was Mark Mason describing the accidental bombing by NATO planes of Afghan weddings (where families shoot automatic weapons into the air in celebration, which look quite a bit like Taliban soldiers from 30,000 feet). Do we blame the pilots? The forward air controller who gave permission to drop the bombs? The wedding celebrants firing guns? Osama bin Laden for starting the war that brought the American jets there? George Bush for fighting it as he was? “All of them, in part” is just as easy an answer as “none of them, individually.”

My first instinct is to blame Foxconn and other manufacturers, but they’re running very tight profit margins. Because Apple wants all the profit. As the New York Times reported:

Apple typically asks suppliers to specify how much every part costs, how many workers are needed and the size of their salaries. Executives want to know every financial detail. Afterward, Apple calculates how much it will pay for a part. Most suppliers are allowed only the slimmest of profits.

So blame Apple, right? Not so fast. I buy the argument that corporations are, by their nature, sociopathic. The structure and purpose of the modern corporation is the make money for shareholders within the bounds of the law. That’s it. At that, Apple is doing remarkably well. They’re breaking few, if any, laws while reaping a market share larger than the GDP of Hong Kong. Part of this comes from the fact that they moved to places where the laws are much more relaxed or only loosely enforced.

Should we blame the consumer? I don’t think individualizing responsibility will get us anywhere and I think it detracts from the larger problem, the system itself. We need to think like citizens, not just consumers. In the words of Annie Leonard, of Story of Stuff fame:

Let’s stop thinking like consumers and think like citizens. By all means let’s shun products from companies whose behavior offends. But let’s also realize we can work to change not just the way they act but the way they’re allowed to act. Only when every manufacturer of Stuff is required to make it safely and fairly will we know that no matter what we buy, the important choices have already been made.

David Harvey says in The Enigma of Capital that when we think of class struggle we often imagine workers rising up against the forces of capital, “when, in fact, it’s the other way around.” The global economic system has brought increased earnings to the rural poor, but at nothing near a fair share of the value of the products they’re creating. The entire system is set up against them from taking any more than the minimum markets would allow for. So, yes, we see wages rising across China – but it’s only because of labor shortages. The political voice of the workers has been intentionally castrated, such that we all clamored to our headphones and speakers when Mr. Daisey said he’d actually heard from a few of them.

So blame the system, then get to work fixing it by demanding higher legal standards across the commodity chain. It’s not “free” trade, much less fair trade, if an American company is outsourcing to a country that jails labor organizers and crushes any attempt to build civil society amongst the most marginalized members of society. The difference between being empowered and disempowered can be the difference between life and death, or health and sickness. The Pearl River manufacturing machine is ripping off 40,000 fingers a year. While Australian miners make upwards of $100,000 a year for their labor (and their companies remain competitive), Chinese coal miners died at war-like rates. 7,000 died in 2002 alone. The situation, of course, has gotten much better. Only 2700 died in 2009. Which averages to seven a day and more than the total of all US military deaths in Afghanistan.

I’ll end with my preferred policy prescription. We either need to be rethinking minimum wages or thinking about maximum wages. Either idea would need to be connected more closely to actual market conditions. In my alternative minimum wage scenario, the final retail price of product makes it way back down the value chain. You would set a percentage, perhaps 20%, which would be required to work its way back to the people who made the product. With the iPad, that would ne the miners, cargo ship workers, the factory workers, and even salespeople who are absolutely essential but are altogether disposable and replaceable in market-thinking. Distributing $80 of every iPad purchase away from Apple’s shareholders and towards workers at the bottom of the commodity chain would do more for economic fairness and development than any aid program ever dreamed of. Even a smaller number like 10% would raise wages (and fairness) by orders of magnitude.

The maximum wage idea would be similar, you would follow the full value chain from miner to CEO and set a cap – any cap – on how much more the highest paid worker can make compared to the lowest. It could be extremely high, say even 10,000, and still bring a lot of money back down to the workers. If a CEO is making $20m/year, then the lowest paid worker on the commodity chain would need to make at least $2,000/year. This would force us to confront the inequity when we actually set the number. How much is one human being actually worth compared to another? Those are precisely the kinds of conversations we’re not having right now when we let market conditions and personal backgrounds set prices for us.

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