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Corporate America Culpable in Detention
WE ARE INDEBTED to Texas radio talk show host Jim Hightower for bringing to our attention yet another example of a blatant human rights violation in China, the detention of a Chinese worker, Cao Maobing, who attempted to organize an independent labor union.
We also appreciate Mr. Hightowers criticism of congress, last year, for abandoning its annual review of human rights in China, largely under pressure from certain big corporations that dont want human rights issues to stand in the way of their business interests in China. (Which is not, by the way, the same as perpetrating the abuses, a point seemingly lost on Mr. Hightower.)
Mr. Hightower was on target when he stated, in his characteristically witty style, "Last year, a majority of our congress critters kowtowed to Motorola, Boeing and other corporate giants by killing an annual congressional review of Chinas atrocious human rights record." We have raised a similar criticism.
(We also enjoy Mr. Hightowers homespun "congress critters" as an alternative to the unwieldy but politically correct "congressmen and congresswomen" or the awkward but equally PC "congresspersons.")
But Mr. Hightower, the self-styled "Number One Populist" in the country, goes too far in trying to put the blame on Corporate America for Mr. Caos mistreatment.
Mr. Cao, writes Mr. Hightower, is paying "the price of free trade." Oh, so are we to believe that before Boeing and Motorola began doing business in China, the human rights situation was more tolerable there? Gimme a break!
In deciding to discontinue the annual human rights review, said Mr. Hightower in his February 28, 2001 commentary, Congress caved in to corporate lobbiest who told them that there was "no need to pressure Chinas thuggish, totalitarian rulers ... because by engaging them as business partners, they would be exposed to the Western morality of our corporate executives, and this would influence them to behave more humanely."
We doubt, first of all, that the corporate lobbyists put it exactly that way. But Mr. Hightowers innuendo that Western corporate executives as a group or, for that matter, Western morality, are no better than "Chinas thuggish, totalitarian rulers" is uncalled for. (Morality, incidentally, is not an East-West thing.)
"Even though Boeing, Motorola, and others have had lots of engagement with their new Chinese partners," Mr. Hightower continued, "not much humaneness seems to have rubbed off. Recently, Cao was rather rudely arrested and hauled off to the No. 4 Psychiatric Hospital in Yancheng. It seems China doesnt allow independent unions a little technical point that is a big reason our corporations want to move our manufacturing jobs over there in the first place."
Oh, now we see where Mr. Hightower is coming from. This isnt about Chinas human rights abuses. Its about the loss of "our" jobs.
And yes, one of the reasons some companies choose to go offshore with their manufacturing operations is to get away from the often unreasonable, unsuportable and unsustainable demands American labor unions. Another is to get away from the often anti-business attitude of many U.S. bureaucratic regulations. Sometimes its a matter of survival. Its go offshore or shut down, and either way the jobs are lost.
That excuses no one, and no corporation, from a moral obligation to treat their employees well, justly, fairly, humanely, no matter where they may locate. We would like to think that American companies that put manufacturing operations in China and elsewhere overseas would in fact be exemplary, by running their businesses in those countries with impeccable integrity and treating their employees better than they are used to being treated. We know that often happens; we wish it were always the case. When it is not, it deserves to be exposed.
But in the case of Mr. Cao, it is shabby and completely unwarranted to blame U.S. corporations or corporate executives for his mistreatment. He wasnt working for Boeing or Motorola. He was working as an electrician in the state-run Funig Silk factory. The Times of India reported on December 17, 2000, that half of the factorys 2000 employees had been laid off amid the reform of non-profitable state enterprises.
Mr. Cao, according to other sources, attempted to set up an independent trade union to fight for unpaid wages and pensions and protest corruption and embezzlement on the part of the companys top management. (If U.S. unions would stick to such noble causes, we'd be 100 percent behind them.)
Mr. Cao was arrested on December 15, 2000, after speaking to the Western media about his unions campaign, was detained in a psychiatric hospital, and was subsequently diagnosed as suffering from paranoid psychosis, for which he has been "treated" with psychiatric drugs and electric shock therapy.
The diagnosis may have some validity. After all, as the old saw goes, when they are out to get you, paranoia is just clear thinking.
"Internment in psychiatric hospitals has made a return in China over recent months as a means of repression for political opponents," according to the Times of India. "This has been particularly the case for adherents of the banned Falungong sect, at least 600 of whom have been subjected to such treatment, according to the Information Center [for Human Rights and Democracy]."
Mr. Caos case is not an isolated one. China has routinely arrested and detained labor activists. The Hong Kong based China Labor Bulletin has published details on 35 cases, which they say is but "a tiny minority" of the total number of labor activists and trade unionists detained in prisons and labor camps in China in the last decade.
Yes, the United States Congress should be cognizant of such abuses and should factor them in not only when contemplating trade issues but in all foreign policy matters. But human rights issues should never be invoked as a barrier to trade as a pretense by those for whom protectionism is the true agenda, any more than such issues should be ignored by those who want market access at any cost.
Incidentally, Congress cant be held solely to blame for dropping human rights from the governments agenda in China last year. An article in a newsletter published on May 26, 2000 by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University called the Houses vote to lift trade restrictions for China, despite concerns about human rights, "a stunning victory for the Clinton administration" which pushed hard for the new posture. That vote "virtually assures the end of the annual Congressional review of Chinas trade status," the article stated.
The newsletter quoted Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School, as saying that free trade and entry into the World Trade Organization "may speed up Chinas transition to democracy." Well, maybe. We hear this often, and we hope those who hold this view prove to be right. But thats no reason to be quiet about ongoing abuses.
Finally, when we speak out on abuses, lets put the blame where it rightly belongs: on the perpetrators, not on the free traders, except where there may be specific, concrete evidence that they are one and the same.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2001 by Rand Green Communications