An exchange on WTO and China from the Socialist Register mailing list

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Dec 13 08:20:01 MST 1999

In response to some of the points raised by Jason Schulman:

> I think progressives should support the AFL-CIO's opposition to China
> being incorporated into the WTO and gaining most-favored nation status
> in US import policy. Who cares about the fact that they have
> bureaucratic state-owned industries (that CCP bureaucrats would sell off
> and privatize in a minute if any TNC was stupid enough to buy an
> inefficient, gargantuan Stalinist-style steel mill or coal mine!).

Well, the workers in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in China care.
Especially the 50 million being laid off under privatisation/liquidation
of SOEs. This adds to the 120 to 140 million "underemployed" and
unemployed, which surely exacerbates a situation in which workers will
find it very hard to organise independently and defend their rights and
interests. The ACFTU supports privatisation and represses workers'
attempts to oppose it. (Again - there are plentry of examples of
business unions elsewhere preventing workers from opposing

Over the past three years there have been massive workers'
demonstrations and strikes in China opposing the privatisation or
liquidation of SOEs and the loss of housing and other benefits tied to
these jobs. Some protests are as large as 40,000 workers (like the
November 1996 miners' demonstration), and regular protests of 10,000 to
20,000 workers continue to take place. Yet only the Seattle protest is
taken seriously for its demands. The protesting SOE workers in China are
demanding "the right to work", and oppose the increased power and
private profit accumulated by SOE managers. In Nanchong 20,000 workers
demonstrated and took a SOE director hostage (just before his personal
business trip to Thailand), tying him up and parading him through the
streets. Similar militant protests are directed at the cuts to subsidies
that deprive laid-off SOE workers from keeping their housing and health
benefits. But under the cuts to subsidies to steel and textiles (just
two examples) gov't spending in these benefits are also cut. So it's
pretty clear that SOE workers give a damn about China's WTO entry

We have to oppose the authoritarian Communist rergime and its repression
of genuine workers' organisations, but we also have to do this while
taking Chinese workers' own organising and self-activity seriously. The
fact is that they oppose privatisation of SOEs, so we should support
that - not undermine it.

> What we should care about is that folks are beginning to draw a line
> that regimes that smash independent unions should not be allowed
> into a trade regime in which progressives are pushing to say no
> admission for regimes that bust unions.

This seems to suggest that countries with regimes under which there are
independent, democratic unions should be in the WTO. If we understand
how destructive the WTO is, then what's the logic of that? Surely the
point is that we oppose the WTO and see that its trade regime undermines
worker and trade union rights and smashes independent unions. Look at

> That the AFL-CIO is drawing the line on China is obviously somewhat
> arbitrary, but it is a country of 1.2 billion folks which sells a lot
> of prison-made goods (the toys your kids buy, often) in the USA.
> Plus a lot of apparel made in do other countries...but
> if we start with China, then it will be easier to fight against
> expanding NAFTA -- without any union rights and environmental protection
> strong guarantees -- to the rest of the hemisphere, etc.

Why not start with the US? A larger proprtion of prison-made goods
bought in the US are made in the US. Yet we don't hear anything about
the prison labour problem in the US itself. US prisons are becoming
corporations geaered for private profit and they produce goods for the
consumer market. But that doesn't violate WTO rules because it's not
exported! The same goes with sweatshops. We should be linking prison
labour in China and the US as a common issue facing the working class -
it's an international working class issue, not a "China" issue. And if
the AFL-CIO is so concerned about "core labour standards" then they
should demand the US gov't sign the other 5 core ILO Conventions. You
can't just use ILO Conventions for other countries.

> Gerard Greenfield has a point in that we can say "we oppose China
> joining the WTO" and "we oppose the WTO."  That said, I honestly don't
> know whether the WTO could be reformed so it could enforce international
> labor and human rights guarantees. I have heard lots of rhetoric but few
> specifics.

Opposing the WTO is not about reforming it. I don't believe that
including social clauses and guidelines etc will work. We've already got
international laws and treaties on human rights, labour rights, etc, and
it is rarel implemented. I think it requires a strategy of exclusion,
where genuine organising and critical public education is directed at
forcing the exclusion of health, education, bioresources, traditional
knowledge, agriculture, etc, from the WTO regime. Exclusion should be
based on the argument that certain dimensions of our social lives and
the ecological system in which we live are not and should not be
commodities and therefore should not be under the WTO regime. But this
only forms one part of a wider movement for de-commodification
(including the decommodification of labour-power) as a movement against


Louis Proyect

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