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US: Don't Bash China

Build a Positive Labor-Environment Agenda
by Walden Bello and Anuradha MittalInstitute for Food and Development Policy/Food First
May 1st, 2000

The anti-China trade campaign amounts to a Faustian bargain that seeks to buy some space for US organized labor at the expense of real solidarity with workers and progressive worker and environmental movements globally against transnational capital. But by buying into the traditional US imperial response of unilateralism, it will end up eventually eroding the position of progressive labor, environmental, and civil society movements both in the US and throughout the world.

What organized labor and US NGO's should be doing, instead, is articulating a positive agenda aimed at weakening the power of global corporations and multilateral agencies that promote TNC-led globalization.

The first order of business is to not allow the progressive movement to be sandbagged in the pro-permanent normal trade relations, anti-permanent normal trade relations terms of engagement that now frames the debate. While progressives must, for the time being, oppose the more dangerous threat posed by the unilateralists, they should be developing a position on global economic relations that avoids both the free trade paradigm that underlies the PNTR and the unilateralist paradigm of the anti-PNTR forces. The model we propose is managed trade, which allows trading partners to negotiate bilateral and multilateral treaties that address central issues in their relationship--among them, the need to preserve workers jobs in the US with the developing countries' need for market access.

Advocacy of managed trade must, however, be part of a broader campaign for progressive global economic governance. The strategic aim of such a campaign must be the tighter regulation, if not replacement, of the model corporate-led free market development that seeks to do away with social and state restrictions on the mobility of capital at the expense of labor. In its place must be established a system of genuine international cooperation and looser global economic integration that allows countries to follow paths of national and regional development that make the domestic market and regional markets rather than the global market the engine of growth, development, and job creation.

This means support for measures of asset and income redistribution that would create the purchasing power that will make domestic markets viable. It means support for trade measures and capital controls that will give countries more control over their trade and finance so that commodity and capital flows become less disruptive and destabilizing. It means support for regional integration or regional economic union among the developing countries as an alternative to indiscriminate globalization.

A key element in this campaign for a new global economic governance is the abolition of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization that serve as the pillars of the system of corporate-led globalization and their replacement with a pluralistic system of institutions that complement but at the same time check and balance one another, thus giving the developing countries the space to pursue their paths to development.

The IMF, World Bank, and WTO are currently experiencing a severe crisis of legitimacy, following the debacle in Seattle, the April protests in Washington, and the release of the report of the International Financial Institutions Advisory Commission (Meltzer Commission) appointed by the US Congress, which recommends the radical downsizing or transformation of the Bank and Fund. Now is the time for the progressive movement to take the offensive and push for the elimination or radical transformation of these institutions. Yet, here we are, being waylaid from this critical task at this key moment by an ill-advised, divisive campaign to isolate the wrong enemy!

Another key thrust of a positive agenda is a coordinated drive by civil society groups in the North and the South to pressure the US, China, and all other governments to ratify and implement all conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and give the ILO more effective authority to monitor, supervise, and adjudicate implementation of these conventions. This campaign must be part of a broader effort to support the formation of genuine labor unions in China, the Southern United States, and elsewhere in a spirit of real workers' solidarity. This, instead of relying on government trade sanctions that are really self-serving rather than meant to support Third World workers, is the route to the creation of really firm ties of solidarity across North-South lines.

This social and economic program must be tied to a strategy for protecting the global environment that also eschews sanctions as an approach and puts the emphasis on promoting sustainable development models in place of the export-led, high-consumption development model; pushes the adoption of common environmental codes that prevent transnational firms from pitting one country against another in their search for the zero cost environmental regimes; and promotes an environmental Marshall Plan aimed at transferring appropriate green process and production technologies to China and other developing countries.

Above all, this approach must focus not on attacking China and the South but on strategically changing the production and consumption behavior and levels in the North that are by far the biggest source of environmental destabilization.

Finally, a positive agenda must have as a central element civil society groups in the North working constructively with people's movements in China, the United States, and other countries experiencing democratic deficits to support the expansion of democratic space. While the campaign must be uncompromising in denouncing acts of repression like the Tienanmen Square massacre and Washington's use of mass incarceration as a tool of social control, it must avoid imposing the forms of Western procedural democracy on others and hew to the principle that it is the people in these countries themselves that must take the lead in building democracy according to their rhythm, traditions, and cultures.

Abandoning Unilateralism

The anti-PNTR coalition is an alliance born of opportunism. In its effort to block imports from China, the AFL-CIO is courting the more conservative sectors of the US population, including the Buchananite right wing, by stirring the old Cold War rhetoric. Nothing could be a more repellent image of this sordid project than John Sweeney, James Hoffa, President of the Teamsters, and Pat Buchanan holding hands in the anti-China trade rally on April 12, 2000, with Buchanan promising to make Hoffa his top negotiator of trade, if he won the race for president.

Some environmental groups and citizens groups which have long but unsuccessfully courted labor, have, in turn, endorsed the campaign because they see it as the perfect opportunity to build bridges to the AFL-CIO. What we have, as a result, is an alliance built on the assertion of US unilateralism rather than on the cornerstone of fundamental shared goals of solidarity, equity, and environmental integrity.

This is not a progressive alliance but a right-wing populist alliance in the tradition of the anti-communist Big Government-Big Capital-Big Labor alliance during the Cold War, the labor-capital alliance in the West that produced the Exclusion and Ant-Miscegenation Acts against Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and, more recently, the populist movement that has supported the tightening of racist immigration laws by emphasizing the divide between workers who are citizens and workers who are not, with the latter being deprived of basic political rights.

It is a policy that will, moreover, feed global instability by lending support to the efforts of the US right and the Pentagon to demonize China as The Enemy and resurrect Containment as America's Grand Strategy, this time with China instead of the Soviet Union as the foe in a paradigm designed to advance American strategic hegemony.

As in every other instance of unprincipled unity between the right and some sectors of the progressive movement, progressives will find that it will be the right that will walk away with the movement while they will be left with not even their principles.

It is time to move away from this terribly misguided effort to derail the progressive movement by demonizing China, and to bring us all back to the spirit of Seattle as a movement of citizens of the world against corporate-led globalization and for genuine international cooperation.

Excerpted from "Dangerous Liaisons: Progressives, the Right, and the Anti-China Trade Campaign" and located at

Walden Bello is executive director of Focus on the Global South, a program of research, analysis, and capacity building based in Bangkok; Anuradha Mittal is co-director of the Oakland-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, better known as Food First. We would like to thank Nicola Bullard, Peter Rosset, and Sal Glynn for their invaluable 1310advice and assistance.