China On My Mind: Seeing Indiana

Barbies and the State

“Never think of a surface except as the extension of a volume…” Henry Moore (out of Rodin) quoted by Donal Hall

China was forced upon me.  Look, but don’t read beyond the excerpts below, unless you have a lot of time and a mind that can hold any number of contradictory ideas at one time as a juggler might chainsaws.  It is a world unknown to me and also, I have to strongly suppose, to you.  I might go further and assume you know one thing about China, it makes most of the products we do not need nor likely really even want.  That fact itself turns out to be mostly erroneous.  And, AND, if it were not such a massive land, I’d bet locating it on a map might be difficult too.  Be sure I don’t condemn this lack of knowledge, ignorance is a cultural and social sine qua non.  (I typed that Latin phrase and then had to look it up, not completely sure it made sense–but my mind apparently knew more than I did.)

So, here are a few chainsaws to throw up and keep moving.  Again, skim: it is a game being played by the Leaders and Owners and their proxies and does not require your participation but simple acquiescence to things as they are.

The Project Syndicate, a web site that offers courtier-views on politics and policy (don’t you want to know what the experts want you to know?), popped up on my Facebook with two columns on China today.  Snippets of each.

Tomorrow’s Pax Pacifica

Moreover, Asia has been demonstrating democratic progress, as well as a strong interest in expanding its economic openness (both internally and externally). The region is also acknowledging the need for national sovereignty, whereby countries do not have to fear outside interference with domestic politics. Finally, across the region, there is a pervasive desire to avoid polarization into Chinese and American blocs. Instead, countries in the Pacific region are attempting to build the institutions and the habits of cooperation that will enable all of us to collaborate in addressing individual security challenges as they arise….

As China seeks to take its place in the global order, it has increasingly sought to enhance its global leverage by cooperating with other emerging economies – the other “BRICS” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) – in major global negotiations. The BRICS’ regular meetings and cooperation at multiple levels are likely to be a continuing feature of the international system. But, with the exclusion of the US, this does not provide a common platform to deal with shared policy challenges in Asia (or, for that matter, elsewhere).

In his recent book On China, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argues for the development of a Pacific Community. In 2011, a good start at following through on this vision was realized at the East Asia Summit in Bali, where, for the first time, China, the US, and the region’s other principal players gathered around a table to deliberate their interests. It was a historic opportunity to begin forging a common vision for Asia’s future.

The task today is to craft what future historians might call a Pax Pacifica – a peace that will ultimately be anchored in the principles of common security, and that recognizes the realities of US and Chinese power, without turning the rest of the region into collateral damage should the Sino-American relationship deteriorate.

I mean, really, anyone offering Kissinger as ideological collaboration deserves no hearing, except in a war crimes tribunal.  Here is one of Kissinger’s best jokes:The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.” (as quoted in The Washington Post, 23 December 1973).  Here is another: the lowest estimate of deaths in this 20-year “war” is 2,500,000.

But is there anything here at all to be called an argument about anything?  China should do what the West wants for “common security,” “common vision,” to address “security challenges,” and in opposition to the rest of the world’s legitimate interests (BRICS–there’s that ugly dimunition of thought called an acronym).

China’s Syrian Folly

China’s communist rulers have always resented the advent of “humanitarian intervention.” After all, if the Western powers can impose regime change on authoritarian states on humanitarian grounds, why would this stop at China’s borders? But, until now, there was little that China’s leaders could do about it. Now, with the costs of the West’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, to a lesser extent, in Libya) compounded by its major economies’ weakness, China’s leaders appear to see an opportunity to push back.

With Russia on its side, the Chinese government can take a stand without appearing isolated. And, while a long-term strategic alliance between Russia and China may not be in the offing, tactical cooperation to stop the West from imposing its values on the global community is likely to persist, so long as Vladimir Putin retains power in Russia.

A rising great power like China taking on a proactive global role is, in principle, a positive development. But the world will not be a better place if China’s newfound assertiveness is focused – or, just as importantly, is perceived to be focused – almost exclusively on helping autocrats to stay in power through brutal repression of their citizens.

Again, China is not following the appropriate US script.  But you have to love the way this is written.  1) China’s communist rulers (be sure to get that label in there) resent “humanitarian intervention”–why I wonder?  Because it’s utterly hypocritical in the first place (worker treatment, for instance and noted below, benefits Western “globalism”) but in reality just “politics” or “war” by another name.  2) The West has had “misadventures” in the Middle East.  Well, if that’s all they are there really shouldn’t be any fuss about them.  3) Uh oh, here comes Russia again–a doubling down of the “red menace”!  4) China, happily brutally repressive, should not support brutal repression elsewhere!  The key word here is “brutal”–if you do repression right, like we do it in the West, you can still call it Freedom!

In the most recent New York Review of Books is “The Chinese Are Coming,” a review of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.  (A pay-wall here so if you want to read it all just drop me a note.)  There’s too much in this one to go into, but the close is instructive:

A big part of the challenge posed by China is the success that it has had in presenting an alternative to the democratic values and practices that the United States and other countries advocate. Two decades ago, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the conviction became almost universal that for a country to be successful, it had to follow the “free-market” democratic model. Notwithstanding China’s harsh treatment of dissidents and its single-party rule, its impressive growth, its investment in technology, its foreign exchange reserves, its awesome infrastructure development, and the other features of its state-planned progress are an implicit demonstration that the Western model isn’t the only workable one, especially at a time when the West is experiencing its own unplanned economic crisis. This is a notion as common in the Chinese press as the notion that American concern about rights is just an excuse to maintain global dominance. “An embattled West has been caught unprepared by a defiant but practical China,” a columnist in Global Times exulted recently. He might be right.

Hello, when economic dominance is all we’re going to measure as the “proof” of legitimate governing policy–China appears to be doing to the US what the US proposed it did to the USSR.  In reality, this is “outlasting” them via resource fortune.

In the most recent London Review of Books is “Sino-Americana,” a review of three books, one the Kissinger tome referred to above (still collecting casualties), offers the tenor of what is being pushed in the popular press:

Books about China, popular and scholarly, continue to pour off the presses. In this ever expanding literature, there is a subdivision that could be entitled ‘Under Western Eyes’. The larger part of it consists of works that appear to be about China, or some figure or topic from China, but whose real frame of reference, determining the optic, is the United States. Typically written by functionaries of the state, co-opted or career, they have as their underlying question: ‘China – what’s in it for us?’ Rather than Sinology proper, they are Sino-Americana

Functionaries of the state.  There is no more apt phrase than that.  Apply liberally to all corporate media content.

And, because it’s just who I am, the February issue of The Monthly Review is devoted to China.

For some time I have been, like you I imagine (as I must imagine you), a guy who turns over toys and looks at tags and examines dog food always expecting what is inevitably the case, Made In China.  Sometimes I am treated with what appears to me the minor difference of some other Asian country of which I am completely ignorant other than recognizing the name of it.

But I have to confess I’ve begun to tire of “Made in China” being a kind of curse in our Western lexicon (I do however approve of any denigration of corporate production shackles forced upon the world by coercive behemoth’s like WalMart).  We tend towards demonization of the Other as our primary worldview in America.  One comes to learn though that “made in China” can be seen as used intentionally to separate the truth from placing that curse where it belongs.  And in reality, “made” means, at most, assembled.

It’s not China, not even in abstract, that is to bear the blame we offer as sop to our consumerist guilt; it’s the Western economic machinery that’s destroying the world one Barbie at a time.  China has it’s own problems, one of them being that it does what Microsoft wants, Apple wants, and what PUMA wants and anyone else who wants massive profits on the backs of the miserable and impoverished human slaves used to create an acquisitive “leisure” economy (though I’m not sure anyone feels that leisure offers much in the way of actual leisure anymore).

I have no knowledge beyond seeing reports full of the kinds of figures that if you read them out as part of an American labor statistics report you would realize the drastic hell that we place other people in.  I hope in reading them you will be moved to realize soylent green is people.

If the literature on offer is China “under Western eyes” as Anderson notes, then we might simply call China’s capital production “under Western dies.”  From the article, The Global Stagnation and China” in the February MR:

In order to illustrate the effects of global supply chains it is useful to look at the famous example of Barbie and the world economy. A Barbie doll (“My First Tea Party Barbie”) marketed in California in 1996 sold at a price of $9.99 and was labeled “Made in China.” Nearly all of the raw materials and parts that made up the doll, however, were imported, while Chinese workers put together the final Barbie. (At the time there were two Barbie factories in China and one each in Indonesia and Malaysia.) Each factory in China employed around 5,500 workers. Most of the plastic resin in the form of pellets or “chips” was probably imported via the Chinese Petroleum Corporation, Taiwan’s state-owned oil importer. The nylon hair came from Japan. The cardboard packaging and many of the paint pigments and oils used for decorating the dolls came from the United States. Only the cotton cloth for Barbie’s dress came from China, which otherwise simply supplied labor to assemble the dolls. The workers operated the plastic mold-injection machines, painted the details on the doll (requiring fifteen different paint stations), and sewed the clothing. Workers were paid around $40 a month. The total labor cost for each Barbie was a mere 35 cents, or 3.5 percent of the final retail price.

In 2008 Chinese manufacturing workers on average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, received only 4 percent of the wage compensation of manufacturing workers in the United States. Hence, the added margin of profit to be obtained by producing in China (with the same technology) instead of the United States or other developed countries can be enormous. Chinese workers that assemble iPhones for Foxconn, which subcontracts for Apple, are paid wages that only represent 3.6 percent of the final total manufacturing cost (shipping price), contributing to Apple’s huge 64 percent gross profit margin over manufacturing cost on iPhones, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Work under these conditions, especially if it involves migrant labor, often takes the form of superexploitation, since the payment to workers is below the value of labor power (the costs of reproduction of the worker)

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. The KYE factory in China produces manufactured goods for Microsoft and other U.S. factories, employing up to 1,000 “work-study” students 16–17 years of age, with a typical shift running from 7:45 A.M. to 10:55 P.M. Along with the “students,” the factory hires women 18–25 years of age. Workers reported spending ninety-seven hours a week at the factory before the recession, working eighty plus hours. In 2009, given the economic slowdown, the workers were at the factory eighty-three hours a week, and on the production line sixty-eight. Workers race to meet the requirement of producing 2,000 Microsoft mice per shift. The factories are extremely crowded; one workshop, 105 feet by 105 feet, has almost 1,000 toiling workers. They are paid 65 cents an hour, with 52 cents an hour take-home pay, after the cost of abysmal factory food is deducted. Fourteen workers share each dorm room, sleeping on narrow bunk beds. They “shower” by fetching hot water in a small plastic bucket for a sponge bath.

Can you stretch your imagination just a hair’s breadth, Indiana, Oklahoma, Alabama–all those “right to work” states–and see your children, sons and daughters, forced to work (there is no other work on offer) under these conditions?

It might serve as an aid if you could get people in China on your mind instead of a “Risk” board game understanding of geopolitical strategy (or, what Project Syndicate offers up as expertise).

Photo Credit: greenmelinda

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  1. Bobby V. February 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Interesting observations, Douglas. I think global economic growth as defined by capitalist (and neo-capitalist) economic models is nearing it’s end. If that is true, either current economic models must be modified/adbandoned (fat chance) or future growth must be compartmentalized for as long as possible. In that case, every win somewhere in the system(s) is exactly offset by a loss somewhere else (zero-sum). This is paradoxical within a global growth-based economic system, because it pits winners against losers instead of pitting the hard-working against the lazy (I’m accepting a premise of capitalism for sake of argument). If only the Earth was bigger and there were new continents to be tamed – ideally without the genocide that accompanied prior efforts. Mars, maybe? Really, I think we’re witnessing a grand charade. I don’t know how long it can be played, but the dream (not my dream) of a “New World Order” is vanishing.

    1. Douglas February 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      I’d guess resource wars will cancel out any other economic designs.


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