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China: Economic Interdependency vs. Human Rights

As it has circled the globe, protestors have chased the Olympic flame as it traveled to Beijing. That China has been involved in human rights abuses and untoward activities in Tibet is a fact, and a boycott of the Olympics would certainly send a signal to the authorities that the world is paying attention. But as far as having a lasting financial impact, it would be a drop in the bucket when compared with the sheer volume of trade with China that takes place every single day.
Although the Soviet Union was demonized as the Evil Empire because it pointed nuclear missiles at the United States and threatened to turn our country into a ditch, up until the last few months as politicians have begun to grasp the value of speaking out about the issue, China has escaped much of our scrutiny most likely because of its business acumen and our flat-out dependence on it. Face it – almost everything is made in China these days. Even the computer mouse that went out of control and accidentally deleted this paragraph the first time I wrote it was made in China.
Normally, I don’t like to think too hard about the person who fastened the screws that hold it together or glued the little pads on that help it slide around. If the stories coming out of China are correct, it was probably made by a sweat-shop employee who earns a few cents a day and is treated like a slave, an actual slave, or a prisoner, so that I could buy it for $5.95 (after a rebate I never received) and still give Best Buy a healthy profit. Same goes for my phone and this computer. Even my Canadian-made shirt would fall off without its Chinese-made buttons. If I were to suddenly boycott all my stuff that was made in China by people living under less-than-favorable conditions, I would probably be forced to wear an American-made barrel. So would you.
According to the Financial Times, China has had the world’s largest economy for 18 of the past 20 centuries. (1) China represented a full 33% of the world’s gross domestic product as recently as 1820. It has only been in the last 100 years that the United States overtook China’s economy as a function of the industrial revolution and possibly the onset of communism, and this period may be viewed as an anomaly if current trends continue.
It is well-known that the communist government of China has enslaved, tortured, and killed political dissidents, including Christians, Buddhists, and everybody else who has questioned the regime. China has severely limited freedom of speech to the point where, according to Reporters Without Borders, at least 30 journalists and 50 bloggers have been thrown in jail for what they have written. In fact, if I was living in China and published this, I would probably get a strict talking-to by the local officials. And if a person in China decided to print out this page and pass it around, they could be arrested.
So does China deserve to host the Olympics? Ask Ye Guozhu, the leader of the human rights protests in China. Of course, you’ll have to wait a while to do so since he’s currently serving a four-year prison sentence, has limited access to his own attorney, and can only dream about seeing his family.
Whether or not a boycott would achieve a positive result for human rights in China is a matter of debate. If it worked, then human rights problems could be significantly reduced as Chinese authorities recognized the errors of the ways. Most likely, they would respond by increasing penalties against those who dared to report the problem, and stifle communications with the rest of the world.
Culpability for the current state of affairs in China is not limited to China, but also to those countries which opened vast arenas of trade without any concurrent requirement that human rights be upheld. In fact, the disparity has lowered the prices of Chinese goods that are almost impervious to changes in the value of the dollar, and we fill our closets with items made by people who have been denied their basic human rights.
We used to think that free trade with China would lead to an improvement in the human rights situation, but this has not been working. While we have seen a shift away from socialism to nationalist capitalism, the authoritarian component has remained the same. As a nation, we are locked into trade with China, and indeed are in debt to them to the tune of billions of dollars. Thus, the responsibility of effecting change is unlikely to ever be borne by this nation, however, as an individual consumer you do have the choice to effect a positive change in China, and you can vote with your wallet.
If you’re reading the Spectrum Blog, you are probably already opposed to torture and slavery and you might have even been one of the protestors along the route. You may want to see the United States boycott the Olympics. But what about trade with China? Are you willing to buy only items made by reasonably compensated people and companies that refuse to take economic advantage of limited human rights?
I’m realizing that this is probably sounding a lot like a sermon, so like any good sermon, it’s time to ask for a commitment – The Olympics are largely symbolic, our dollars speak in real terms. My friends, it is one thing to complain about the Olympics being held in that land of persecution and torture, but odds are, like me, you will not be attending or otherwise be contributing in a significant manner. We know that the total money spent during the Olympics will only be a trickle compared with the daily oceans of commerce, yet continue to feed this dragon that has little to no regard for basic human rights? Brothers and sisters, the time has come to ask this important question, what are we going to do about China?

Michael D. Peabody is an employment law attorney in California who frequently writes on Constitutional Law topics.

(1) Chris Patten. Financial Times. Comment & Analysis: Why Europe is getting China so wrong. Accessed January 30, 2008.

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