As the 747 banks gently, gracefully descending toward Hong Kong, two things quickly become obvious to the first-time visitor. The first is the proliferation of skyscrapers, gleaming, anxiously reaching for the clouds you’ve just departed while simultaneously clamoring for precious horizontal space upon the lumpy little green islands. The next thing you can’t help noticing is the busy bay, impossibly cluttered with scores of toy boats that etch intersecting white lines in postcard-blue water, making their way to and from the island’s shores. You end up with a real close view of the bay, since the approach to the terraformed runway makes it appear you’ll be landing in those bustling blue waters.
I traveled to Hong Kong, en route to Shenzhen, China, to do some computer consulting on a large business-systems installation. From the outset, I viewed the trip as a unique opportunity to experience life in another country and, despite the nature of my visit, couldn’t help feeling awed, wide-eyed and–well, like a tourist. I made my way through Hong Kong, via taxis, buses and the subway, marveling at the striking architecture and taking in the frenetic pace of life in that quintessentially international city. It was enlightening to encounter, firsthand, places that I’d only previously known in two-dimensional, nondescript fashion–as tags on athletic apparel or dollar-store dishes: “Made in Hong Kong,” “Made in China.”
Years of school didn’t provide me much in the way of background information on China; and Hong Kong, the former British colony now reverted to Chinese control, was more familiar to me as the stomping grounds of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. More recently though, China has become synonymous with, and shorthand for, America’s national anxieties about globalization and world trade. While those issues have long been the concern of labor unions and political activists, the WTO protests in Seattle last year propelled them to the forefront of the national discourse, as manifested in sound-bite news coverage, through media ill-suited to convey the complexities of the convergence of issues and ideologies.
The People’s Republic of China became a lightning rod for globalization as the Clinton administration pursued Most Favored Nation trading status for that country, with the blessing of much of the business community, which salivates over the potential market of 1 billion people (and the accompanying vast pool of cheap labor). In vehement opposition to that policy move was an array of political groups decrying the deal for multiple reasons–its potential to eliminate jobs in the United States; providing legitimacy to China’s human rights record. My first trip to China coincided with a meeting of the World Trade Organization in New Zealand, and the protests that surrounded that event, as in Seattle, put world trade issues on the front pages of international news, and in the forefront of my thoughts. I carried that mental baggage with me throughout the remainder of my travels. While in China, I accumulated observations like souvenirs, planning to eventually make room for them in my evolving worldview. My trip became a chance to compare what I’d heard previously with what I’d now observe.
My let-me-see-for-myself stance is bound to draw a gasp from those who presume that any self-respecting progressive is honor-bound to vigorously oppose globalization as it’s come to be defined. On the strength of the Seattle protests, 1999 was truly a watershed year for public protest against the multinational corporations (and the governments that love them) clamoring to tear down every barrier to international profiteering. I’m one of the last folks to be confused with a free marketeer, but while fundamentally opposed to the myriad abuses that occur under the rubric of global economy, I feel that there’s a positive potential to be derived from increased world trade. This benign globalism I envision would occur under a sort of inverse Amway economic theory, where you sell people stuff and then become friends with them. More to the point, though, these changes are going to take place whether we want them to or not, so we may as well participate up front, and try to make the overall process as palatable as possible. Of course I recognize that holding such a nuanced opinion on these matters is a luxury of my position in the labor market.
The issues are much more cut-and-dried for manufacturing workers whose jobs are likely to be casualties of this inescapable trend. A recent article in The News & Observer provided some insight into the complexities and realities surrounding world trade, as it examined the effects of NAFTA on North Carolina. The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, which lifted economic barriers between Canada, the United States and Mexico, cost North Carolina an estimated 20,000 jobs over a five-year period following the 1994 enactment of the measure. There were more jobs lost, mostly within the textile industry, in North Carolina than in any other state in the country. On the flip side, however, the article points out that other effects of NAFTA caused North Carolina’s annual exports to Mexico, again mostly textiles, to almost quadruple, growing from $506 million in 1993 to $1.7 billion in 1999. The increased revenues would indicate an overall positive impact on the state’s economy, but of course there’s no guarantee that the benefits in these trade-off situations go to the displaced workers. By rights, the companies should have to compensate and retrain displaced workers, but at the very least, the government could earmark the additional tax revenues it receives from the deal for those purposes, to ensure that no one gets left out in the cold.
Projections on the impact of increased trade with China indicate effects that would be similar to NAFTA, with additional job loss (again centered in the textile industry), but billion dollar windfalls in increased revenues. North Carolina would likely see significant increases in exports of poultry, pork, and tobacco. Shortly thereafter, I’m predicting increased demand for cardiologists and oncologists.
The corollary to all of this “what’s in it for us?” speculation is “what’s in it for them?” In what ways does increased trade with the United States impact other countries? Upon reaching Shenzhen, I must say that I was surprised that everything in mainland China was so … regular. I guess CNN had me thinking there’d be Tiananmen Square-type tanks all over the place. I actually saw fewer police than in Raleigh, and the ones I did see weren’t armed.
Which brings me to the issue of human rights, often cited by those who argue against trade with China. Because the issue receives so much attention, I kept a skeptical eye out, looking for signs of totalitarianism in action, without finding any. To be sure, I wasn’t trying to say or do anything controversial to test the waters–I’m not stupid. But, again, things seemed “normal” enough. A co-worker who was along on the trip actually attended a Christian worship service, which I’d been told was illegal from churches in the states. Hmm. Even though we were in mainland China, Shenzhen is still in something called a Special Economic Zone, where the cultivation of foreign investments and joint ventures would surely present the government with a motive to put on its best face.
I firmly believe that human rights are of paramount import, and that trade is a valid means of exerting pressure on nations that grossly violate human rights. That said, I do tend to get suspicious when I see folks like Jesse Helms questioning the human rights record of another country. The United States has demonstrated that it hasn’t had human rights qualms in funding death squads in the market-driven dictatorships of Central and South America–we openly encouraged such regimes in El Salvador and Chile. And recently, we’re providing billions more in U.S. taxpayer money to Columbia’s military, where a sizeable portion will no doubt be used for the suppression of its own citizenry. On the home front, if my recollection is correct, this is the country where a man can be shot 41 times in his doorway because he reached for his wallet. Former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, who was falsely imprisoned on purpose by the FBI because of his beliefs, can tell us a thing or two about political prisoners. Black and Hispanic kids arrested for merely being on the streets of Chicago under an unconstitutionally vague anti-gang law can tell you a little about freedom of assembly.
None of which gives China the humanitarian equivalent of a get-out-of-jail free card–it’s abhorrent to me that someone can be imprisoned for saying things which are not approved by the government, or for expression of religious beliefs. But if you are at all concerned with balance and consistency in our foreign policy, it seems that, like Cuba, China’s biggest “offense” in the eyes of the U.S. government is communism. Trade and international contact, however, are hastening change in China, exposing different ideas to the younger generations who’ll eventually take up the reins of leadership and make their own decisions on how to govern themselves, as their counterparts will do around the world.
The prospects for cultural exchange are very promising, and my interaction with the people of China was a highlight of my visit. I did feel chagrined that I was soooo ignorant of this country. Having read the Tao Te Ching and The Art Of War did nothing for my understanding and appreciation of contemporary China, but I had the incentive to learn more. The fact that I at least managed to say “hello” and “thank you” in Cantonese and Mandarin was enough to endear me, however, to folks who knew a hell of a lot more English than I knew of their languages. Everywhere I went, I found a general receptiveness to and curiosity about Americans. Being an African American made me even more of a rarity. One day, during a taxi ride, the driver, speaking haltingly, told me, “I love the music … of the blacks … the black Americans. Very much.” Taken off guard at first, I smiled and thanked him on behalf of all black Americans.
The most lasting impression I took from my visit to China was of how fast they are opening up to international trade, and the visible evidence of this transition. I know how much the Triangle has grown and expanded in the seven years that I’ve been here, and that’s nothing compared to what places like Shenzhen will be like in the near future. Everywhere you look, bamboo scaffolding surrounds high-rises in the making (you get the impression that nothing’s worth building over there if it doesn’t have at least 20 stories). Signs emblazoned with architectural renderings trumpet the imminent coming of industrial parks, hotels and universities. There are clear signs that China is staking its future on its ability to trade with the rest of the world, and they’re determined to be good at it.
Globalization of trade is inevitable, and inexorable. If “globalization” is just a thirteen-letter capitalist swear word whose only ingredients are an alphabet soup of ominous acronyms (NAFTA, GATT and MFN, as administered and enforced by the WTO, IMF, and, damn, the World Bank ain’t an acronym), then we’d better jump on the bandwagon and fix it while it’s rolling, because there’s no stopping it. The urgency of the WTO protesters is entirely warranted. If we want to have any position in the increasingly global economy, and more importantly, if we want to simultaneously address issues of competitive fairness, human rights and environmental protection, we’d better do it as participants and architects of this new global economy. And we’d better do it quickly, while the ink is still wet on these agreements. But for all the very real importance of the developing world economy, to paraphrase the Grinch, what if globalization means just a little … bit … more?
The 14-hour plane ride home from Hong Kong provides a lot of time for thought, and I used a little of it to contemplate a best-case scenario coming out of all of the world trade controversy. Apologies in advance to the black-helicopter-fearing crowd, but I’d actually welcome a world government, provided that it was just, equitable, all-inclusive and respectful of different groups, cultural histories and traditions. Of course, in thousands of years of human history we can probably count on one hand the number of individual nations, city-states, tribes or even villages that have met those lofty standards. Still, that should always be a long-term goal of humanity: an idealized world-state, in which there is a free flow of ideas and cultural exchange among the people on the planet. Or, we could continue on through several more millennia as clumps of strangers strewn across the globe, eyeing each other distrustfully, dealing with each other only out of necessity, and fighting over things we don’t own, but have on loan from the Creator.