The China Syndrome - or, how to meltdown a movement
by Jim Smith

April 2 - When tens of thousands converged on Seattle last November to protest the unrestrained corporate power reflected in the World Trade Organization, they had little idea that forces were at work to hijack their new movement.

We were in Seattle to protest transnational corporations, including Nike, The Gap, McDonalds, Starbucks and all the others, and the oppressive economic order they have set up which is becoming commonly known as neoliberal globalism. To borrow an analogy from the war on drugs, in our economy the corporations are the pushers and the workers and their governments in developing countries are the users, greedy for an income they can wrest from the wealthy and the powerful. In Seattle, we went after the pushers.

Yet only four months after Seattle, a powerful effort is underway to shift the focus away from corporate power to a chauvinistic attack on the Peoples Republic of China. Instead of a democratic discussion and debate within the new movement, a few officials of the AFL-CIO and some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) decided on their own to subvert the growing internationalist movement with a China-bashing litany of accusations of human rights violations and sweatshop conditions that just as easily could have been laid against many of the 131 countries in the WTO.

Not even the United States has clean hands. It has one-quarter of all the world’s prisoners, a rapidly growing body-count from state-sponsored executions, by far the largest military in the world, seemingly constant murders and frame-ups of African-Americans and Latinos by police officers, hundreds of thousands of homeless, millions without health care and one of the worst income distributions in the world. Critics of China would do well also to look to their own backyard.

Why is the AFL-CIO attacking China?

The motivation of the AFL-CIO leaders to attack China is two-fold. Many union leaders have pandered to protectionist sentiments of their members instead of educating them on the need for international solidarity against corporate rule. With a few notable exceptions, most union and federation leaders do not base their policies and actions on furthering class solidarity but instead follow the path of least resistance with short-term goals that qualify them for dubious distinction as "special interests." This failure of leadership not only makes blaming China palatable but is opening the door to demagogues like Patrick Buchanan and his "fortress American" siren song with its anti-immigrant hysteria.

Their second motivation for moving the fight against China to the top of the agenda is ideological. In 1995, John Sweeney and his "New Voices" slate replaced Lane Kirkland, Tom Donahue and a dynasty that could trace its roots back 100 years to Sam Gompers. Sweeney vowed to shake up the federation's international department which for years had worked hand-in-glove with the U.S. State Department and the CIA in fighting the cold war.

In fact, Sweeney did eliminate most of the cold warriors and changed the name of the international operation to the Solidarity Center. But there was one important exception - the Asia desk. It is from here, under the direction of Kirkland holdover, Mark Hankin, that the barrage of anti-China propaganda emanates. The unreconstructed cold warriors of the Asia desk enthusiastically promote China dissidents in cooperation with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Hoover Institute, the CIA or a combination of all of them.

Strange Bedfellows

The fight against granting China permanent most favored nation status and entry into the WTO has created strange bedfellows. When Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Chinese were driven out of mainland China in 1949 by the Peoples Liberation Army, the cry "Who lost China?" went up in right-wing circles in the U.S. A rabidly anti-union wing of the Republican Party led by Senators Robert Taft and Joe McCarthy led the hue and cry which didn't abate until after two bloody wars on China's borders - Korea and Vietnam. Meanwhile, they passed the Taft-Hartley Act which still hobbles labor 50 years later.

Notwithstanding the new labor-far right alliance against China, liberal opponents of the Chinese would argue that its bad human-rights record speaks for itself. However, this argument breaks down when China is compared to other developing countries, such as, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries of Asia and the Middle East.

In addition, some would argue that China is still based on a socialist model and should not be evaluated only on criteria derived from advanced capitalist societies. For example, it could be argued that in China the multiplicity of local organizations and societies is more profoundly democratic than the two-party political system in the U.S. In addition, an argument could be made that economic rights, such as housing, health care and education are more respected in China than in the U.S. The relative value of these competing paradigms is largely in the eyes of the beholder.

However, there can be no argument that with 100 million members, China has the largest trade union organization in the world. The All China Confederation of Trade Unions has approximately eight times as many members as does the AFL-CIO. Yet, Sweeney and others refuse to deal with it on the grounds that it is part of the state apparatus. The Chinese political structure is modeled on the pattern developed after 1917 revolution in Russia where the Communist Party, the government, the labor movement and agrarian organizations are closely linked and interconnected. Cuba, which is a WTO member, also has this structure.

However, it is not just in Communist countries that such a structure is found. The South African labor movement proudly proclaims its alliance with the Communist Party and the African National Congress on its website <www.cosatu.org.za>. Is Sweeney planning to go on a tirade against South Africa next? Not likely. Just south of the border, Mexico has "enjoyed" a similar system since 1910. The labor movement, the CTM, and the ruling party, the PRI, are like two peas in a pod, yet no sanctions are demanded against Mexico.

Even the AFL-CIO is not immune from charges of governmental coziness. Lane Kirkland graduated from the State Department to become George Meany's understudy and successor (see "The Last Cold Warrior," Z Magazine, July 1995). As AFL-CIO President, Kirkland did the bidding of his former State Department - and some say, CIA - colleagues for many years. It's taken a long time for the federation to live down its nickname, AFL-CIA.

If Nixon could go to China, why not Sweeney

More than 30 years after Richard Nixon went to China to meet his arch-enemy, Mao Zedong and more than two years after Pope John Paul II met with Fidel Castro, John Sweeney has yet to meet with his opposite number in the All China Confederation of Trade Unions, or even visit a union hall in Shanghai. Perhaps he will find Chinese trade unionists to be poor representatives of workers' rights, in spite of the strong labor laws in the dominate public sector. But at least it would be worth the trip before continuing with the jingoistic campaign against China.

We would do better to work for U.S. withdrawal from the WTO than to fight China’s admission. One more country, even one as large as China, will not change the basic nature of the WTO. It is a tool of the rich and powerful and should be dismantled.

In the final analysis, those who would turn our newly emerging movement into an anti-China campaign are doing a disservice to workers and consumers in this country. At the very moment when the first mass movement since Vietnam is being born, any deviation from its focus on corporate power and their international bodies, including the WTO, the IMF and World Bank, can be deadly. It can lead to demoralization and confusion about who is the real enemy of the vast majority of people in the U.S. and around the world.

We must recognize that China is the most populous - and potentially most powerful - country in the world. More than a billion Chinese want a decent standard of living within their lifetimes. Instead of playing into the hands of the right wing and the military we should welcome their participation in a world based on mutual respect and non-interference in each other affairs. We are all blessed or doomed to live together on this planet. How we interact with China and other emerging nations will determine if the world can avoid a fatal "melt down" in which we destroy each other and the environment.

Jim Smith <> is a Los Angeles labor activist and editor of L.A. Labor News, <www.LAlabor.org>.