Low Prices, Widespread Torture: Our new system of global production


By Harold Meyerson

Whatever its virtues, the United Nations isn’t the first place you’d turn to if you wanted to expose some nefarious internal practices of its more powerful member states. So it came as no small surprise when a U.N. investigator last week documented the “widespread” use of torture in China. Manfred Nowak, who is the special rapporteur of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, noted that electric shock, sleep deprivation and submersion in water or sewage are still common practices in China when the state seeks to obtain confessions and suppress the political dissent it delicately terms “deviant behavior.”

This is hardly the image of the new, improved capitalist China that the neo-Communist regime and American business have teamed up to convey. As they depict it, China is a bustling, modern society that offers everything a company could possibly want to do business. They’re right — and that’s just the problem.

Because if China offers anything to the corporations of the world, it’s a diligent, skilled — and intimidated — work force. Nowak noted the prevalence of torture in China’s labor camps, where the inmates have been imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs and activities. The ultimate crime in China, after all, is to seek to establish autonomous centers of power — churches, parties, unions — not under the control of the Communist Party. Workers who have led strikes or tried to organize unions are still jailed and tortured in the new-model China, as democracy advocate and union activist Harry Wu — a veteran of the state’s gulags — can attest.

This is a story that implicates all of us. Torture, and fear of torture, are factors in holding costs down in our new-age globalized production system. Take just-in-time delivery, add a touch of submersion in shit, fear of beating, fear of drowning, and voilà! You get Wal-Mart’s everyday low prices.

That’s not quite how the story gets conveyed in the business press, however. When American economists and executives opine about China, you don’t hear about the jailing and abuse of workers who seek decent living standards. There’s nothing new in this: Our guys in the oil business have never said word one about the repressive Saudi regime, and United Fruit was always the Latin American banana-republic dictator’s best friend. But China is different. It’s not just one benighted sector of American capitalism that’s made its accommodations there. Virtually every major U.S. firm involved in manufacturing and marketing is beating a path to China’s door — and surrendering there any political principles they may have brought with them. Rupert Murdoch’s agreement not to air any officially disapproved broadcasts over his satellite TV system is just one, albeit egregious, example.

So the next time China has a Tian An Men Square–like convulsion, don’t count on American business to support the Chinese democrats trying to stop the tanks. A more democratic China means workers with more rights and higher wages. For which reason the U.S. government is likely to be conflicted as well. Even now, while the Defense Department views China as a threat, the Commerce Department views it as a trading partner, or even an extension of the American system of production. Nor is it a given that a Democratic administration would be less immune than the Bush administration is to this political schizophrenia. It was the Clinton White House, after all, that promoted China’s no-questions-asked admission to the World Trade Organization.

Suppress unions and you get violence: The Middle Kingdom is home to more labor unrest than any other place — actually, than every other place — on the planet. In the factory zones, workers riot and disrupt when their pay is withheld or their co-workers perish doing dangerous jobs that no one in power cared to make safer. In the West, the riot was the normal form of worker protest before unions were legalized in the 19th and 20th centuries. And destabilizing and destructive as riots may be, they pose less of a threat to a quasi-totalitarian regime like China than an orderly strike led by an autonomous workers’ organization.

China may be the most nominal of socialist states, but its claim to legitimacy is still rooted in mumbled phrases about empowering workers. Accordingly, it has its own government-run unions, which aren’t really unions at all. Controlled by the Communist Party, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions features locals whose leaders are often selected by the employer. These unions do not strike — that would be against the law, and disruptive of the social harmony and political control that the powers that be seek to maintain. They cannot bargain aggressively.

It should shock no one, then, that Wal-Mart — a company that closed down all its meat departments in the U.S. when butchers in one store voted to unionize — has embraced the government union in China. “Should associates [the Wal-Mart term for employees] request the formation of a union,” the company said in a statement released late last year, “the company would respect their wishes.” In Bentonville and Beijing, the only good union is a sham union.

What’s curious is why some of America’s most brilliant and dedicated union leaders should be cozying up to the same sham unionists. At the first organizing conference of the new Change To Win Federation, which convened last month in Las Vegas, delegates welcomed invited guests from the All-China Federation. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the leaders of the Service Employees International Union (the Change To Win union most predisposed to the All-China Federation) can smell a company union a mile away. This time, their noses — well, their strategic and moral sense — failed them.

But they’re hardly alone. American companies and consumers count on China; it’s the producer of choice for a nation — ours — where incomes, on average, no longer rise. Only a spoilsport from the United Nations would have the gall to disturb us with the news that our spiffy, 21st-century, integrated global economic system is built on the barbarism of despots and thugs.