The American proponents of globalization and free trade have good arguments to make in behalf of granting China permanent normal trade relation status (what used to be called "most-favored nation status). At least they sound good until you look at the historical record.
Free trade, as the globalizers hype it, would bring countries like China into the free world's marketing orbit. Free markets, they say, create free political institutions. Capitalism, their argument goes, is a prerequisite for democracy. Giving China most-favored nation status would advance the human rights of the Chinese people. Human rights: that's what free trade is about. Hah!
The evidence tells us that capitalist free markets exist quite well under totalitarian conditions where human rights are routinely violated. When the US helped overthrow the elected socialist government of Chile, free markets triumphed. So did torture chambers and death squads. Throughout Latin America and in Iran, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere, military dictatorships -- installed and maintained by American military might -- imposed free market "jack-boot capitalism."
There have always been two aspects to international trade. One is the flow of goods, the second is the flow of money, financial capital. In the past these flows were restrained by national considerations. Corporations were nation-based, not multinational; and trade primarily meant the flow of goods, not the flow of capital. After the second world war, this country dominated. Our planes, textiles, TV sets, shoes, sporting goods, cars and tires flooded the world. But within our country, industry tended to locate where wages were lowest.
Over time, American corporations abandoned America's productive capacity. If it was cheaper to make shirts in low-wage, non-unionized factories in South Carolina than it was to make them in fair-wage unionized shops in Brattleboro, Vermont, then industry abandoned its factory in Brattleboro and relocated in South Carolina. And if it's cheaper to make shirts in China than it is in South Carolina that hello Shanghai, bye bye Carolina.
The US waged the Cold War because communist countries banned American investment. Now, in the post-Cold War era, countries welcome American (and other foreign) investment. Even supposedly communist countries like the People's Republic of China, foreign investment is welcomed, usually in joint partnership with government entities.
It is easier to move financial capital than it is to move workers. Under the free market laws of the global economy, financial capital will flow to areas of low-cost production. That is why American multinational corporations are so intent on opening China to American investment. There are profits to be made by building factories in China. The destruction of America's manufacturing base is not a concern to them. When you go into Wal-Mart and buy products made in China, chances are the company that sold the Chinese product to Wal-mart is an American-based multinational corporation.
Globalizers frame their arguments in terms of human rights in order to avoid discussing their indefensibly selfish and self-interested economic ambitions. Human rights are not a factor on the globalization, free market, free trade agenda though it should be. The CEOs investing in China are wheeling-and dealing with government officials. What they all want is a free market to make money, not a free society or a real democracy. With political freedom comes free speech, a demand for labor unions, worker rights, and environmental protection. Most CEOs oppose these demands at home. Why should we think they'd promote them in China?
The so-called debate about free trade and globalization is a shuck. The large TV networks are owned by multinational corporations that have a vested interest in unfettered globalization. The media describes the opposition as tree-hugging, luddite, granola-heads plus the AFL-CIO, which is described as being concerned with maintaining its membership base. (As if the corporations promoting globalization are not concerned with their bottom-line, but have only the good of humanity in mind). What the media doesn't tell us is that most European countries oppose giving China favored-nation trading status. Europe also favors strong international environmental and labor regulations, something that proponents of free trade in the United States (rhetoric aside) determinedly oppose.
The AFL-CIO does not oppose free trade, as pundits tell us. "We all recognize that globalization is here," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has said (see www.aflcio.org). The question he raises is who is going to set the international rules for globalization. "We want to have workers at the table when trade deals are negotiated," Sweeney has said. "You're not going to see these deals being done behind closed doors." The rules of international trade should safeguard environmental protection, the right of workers to join unions, and basic human rights, he has said.
The China issue is symbolic of a much larger issue that, along with ethnic, racial, religious and tribal hatreds, will define the politics of the current century. The issue is not globalization which, like computer technology, is here to stay. Rather it's about joining economics with political democracy: who sets the rules of the international economy. Both here and abroad the majority of people have no say in the new economy. The Globalizers in America -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- want to turn power over to a few huge multinational corporations. These corporations are quite content dealing with foreign governments that are corrupt and nondemocratic.
Fair trade is an issue that trade unionists, environmentalists, human rights activists, consumers, and ordinary citizens who care about their hometowns should rally around. Globalization is a big concept, but it affects local communities. I have only the vaguest notion of what a global economy based on principles of fair trade would look like, but I know that what the jack-boot globalizers are pushing for is destructive to people and community.
Marty Jezer is a free-lance writer from Brattleboro, Vermont and author of the biography, Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.