Thursday, February 26, 2004

WHAT I'M READING TODAY: State Department Report on Human Rights Practices 2003

Since the brouhaha over the trade and jobs issue that erupted when Bush's chief economist Greg Mankiw accidentally revealed to America how economists view the world, the global punditocracy has responded to the call of duty, circling their wagons and decrying protectionist China bashers.

Just out of curiousity about what these "China-bashers" are charging (that Chinese exports are being subsidized through egregious human rights violations, etc., etc.), I went straight to the source. No, not The Nation. I'm talking about that bastion of knee-jerk liberalism and ire of conservatives everywhere, Collin Powell's State Department.

Here's what I found out about what is going on in China:

The report mentions no less than 40 times by my count (I may have missed some) the cheery sounding reeducation-through-labor camps widely used in China (and it ain't talking about an AFL-CIO activist training). Rather, Chinese citizens (some 250,000 of them) were confined without judicial process and force to work "in facilities directly connected with penal institutions...[or in some cases] they were contracted to nonprison enterprises. Facilities and their management profited from inmate labor." Who were these prisoners? Activists for religious freedom, democratic reform, labor rights, women's rights, people who fall out of favor of the party, people who protest to demand back pay for wages that are withheld (more on this below), and generally people who rake too much muck. "Chinese prison management relied on the labor of prisoners both as an element of punishment and to fund prison operations."

"In 1992, the U.S. and Chinese Governments signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU)[ing] the intention of the governments to cooperate to assure that Chinese prison-made products were not exported to the United States. However, Chinese cooperation under the MOU and SOC has been poor," meaning, of course, we have no way of knowing whether all those cheap wares adorning the shelves at Walmart are made by compulsory labor. (Regardless, the mere existence of forced labor undermines the rights and protections of all workers in China and the countries with which China trades).

In case you were wondering, China has not ratified the ILO core labor standard prohibiting forced compulsory labor, although they are bound to it via other treaties and, not to mention, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. US law (Section 301(d) of the Trade Act) specifically regards such human rights violations as an unfair trade practice.

But wait, there's more. It is common practice in China to keep workers in "bondage" by withholding their pay (which is by default forfeited if a worker decides to quit). Since workers in China have no right to associate freely in trade unions, to bargain collectively or to strike (all also established as universal human rights), they have little recourse but to submit to this exploitation. Even so, spontaneous "protests by workers seeking unpaid wages continued throughout the country" are common place throughout China. Protesting workers have resorted to blocking roads and railways, to threatening suicide, and even to self-immolation. (The reason we don't hear too much about it is because it is illegal in China to photograph and film labor protests, or even groups of unemployed people standing around).

This is just the tip of the iceberg: human trafficking, children sold into forced labor, women sold into prostitution, workers exposed to dangerous chemicals and unsafe working practices, and so on. It is really horrifying reading. Don't read it right before bedtime as I did. This little excerpt from the report kept me up for hours last night:

"Some students worked in light industrial production within or for their schools. In March 2001, an explosion in Jiangxi Province at an elementary school that was also used to manufacture fireworks killed 42 persons, most of them schoolchildren who worked to assemble the fireworks."

All this comes just from the 2003 report, but the State Department has reports posted on its website going back to 1993.

So, as this government report clearly proves, all those whacky China-bashers are protectionists looking out for their own self-interest in their effort to send America back to the economic dark ages. End of argument.


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