Workers Never Act, But Are Merely Acted Upon
February 19, 2012

Today’s New York Times reports that conditions are improving at China’s infamous Foxconn plant. For this, they credit: Foxconn management for raising salaries and cutting overtime; anonymous “critics” of Foxconn management; “labor rights groups”; an audit by the Fair Labor Association; and, by the transitive property, Apple, for requesting the audit.

Oddly enough, the only people to not get any credit at all are the workers at the plant. This despite the fact that we’re only talking about Foxconn right now because hundreds of the plant’s employees threatened mass suicide in protest of appalling labor conditions.

In other words, that higher pay and reduced overtime is a concession that the workers won through a remarkable act of defiance and solidarity. That sounds like a pretty good story! How odd that the Times decided to tell a different story, in which the workers are merely passive objects. (Even the article’s single oblique acknowledgement of worker agency is framed in the passive tense: “Foxconn facilities in China have experienced a series of worker suicides.” Poor Foxconn facilities!)

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Why The US Should Prefer China’s Ruling Party Over The Alternative
February 1, 2011

People's Republic of China President, Hu Jinta...
Image via Wikipedia

An article in yesterday’s Washington Post leads with: “Could the popular revolt against authoritarian regimes of the Middle East ever spread to┬áChina, the world’s most populous nation?”

Well, no. Or at least, it’s highly doubtful. China is certainly a repressive an authoritarian nation by liberal democratic standards, but Hu Jintao (pictured) is no Hosni Mubarak. More importantly, the Chinese Communist Party is flexible in a way that most North African/Middle Eastern despots aren’t, and it’s certainly more committed to economic growth. Widespread poverty was one of the major catalysts for the riots in both Egypt and Tunisia, but poverty in China has been dropping at a remarkable rate.

That isn’t to say that Jintao and the Politburo have absolutely nothing to worry about. But if anything threatens internal stability, it’s not a popular democratic uprising; China’s expanding middle class is largely satisfied with the status quo. The greater threat to the Party comes from within its own security apparatus.

There’s a solid article in this month’s The New Republic (behind a paywall, sadly) that drives this point home. As author Joshua Kurlantzick points out, officers in the People’s Liberation Army tend to be far away more hawkish than their civilian overlords. They’ve also become increasingly willing to make their own policy preferences known, even when those preferences clash with the commands coming down from on high. If a direct challenge to the Chinese government lies in the future, it will come from powerful military tired of being held on a short leash by men who never served within its ranks.

This puts both the United States and human rights groups in a somewhat awkward position: both will find that an authoritarian Communist government run by career bureaucrats does more for their interests than a nationalistic military state. Which is why, contra Kulantzick, I don’t think the Obama administration is doing China’s hawks any favors by showing greater deference to Beijing. Instead, by getting cozy with China’s more moderate civilian leadership, the US is trying to consolidate that leadership’s legitimacy. And that’s smart! Even if it means turning down the heat on issues like Tibet, it’s better for human rights and regional stability in the long run. We certainly wouldn’t be doing the Tibetans any favors if we facilitated the rise of a more belligerent, hawkish Chinese government.

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Understanding China
January 25, 2011

We in the West so often fail to understand China because in our arrogance we assume it fits into Western conceptions of the nation-state, ethnicity, and how state interacts with the individual. That’s the thesis of this excellent TED talk by Mark Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. Here’s the embed:

At the very end of the talk, Jacques rightly points out that the rise of China, India, Brazil and other developing nations herald a democratization of the world order. But anyone who watched the twenty minutes preceding that remark knows that he’s talking about a very specific kind of democratization which has little to do with Western-style liberal democracies and is wholly compatible with the sort of authoritarian paternalism central to Beijing’s governing philosophy. The world order may be democratizing, but that does not mean it is becoming more hospitable for democracy.

Last week I expressed my deep skepticism towards the notion that history will inevitably culminate in a state of enlightened democracy. I presented the philosophical case, but China’s ascension towards world power status strikes me as the empirical one. If, as Jacques predicts, China’s economy dwarfs all others in the year 2050, there won’t be many Western pundits left opining about the end of history. Indeed, the existence of a sinocentric world would leave open the possibility that in four or five centuries liberal democracy will be regarded as a historical fluke.

I pray that won’t be the case. Political legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed remains the most morally defensible justification for political authority we as a species have yet developed. But we need to appreciate that this thing we’ve built is as fragile as it is precious. More to the point, it’s not as quickly and easily exportable as we’ve assumed in the past.

At the same time, we need to understand that the death of liberal democracy likely wouldn’t be some apocalyptic, world-destroying event. It’s possible that when the end comes, most people won’t even notice, let alone mourn. Maybe that sounds a little bit fatalistic, but I’m not talking about inevitabilities. I only want to underscore that democracy’s death is no less preordained than its triumph, and that sheltering what gains we’ve made means humble, clear-eyed engagement with a world that thinks in very different terms.

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