The WTO and the "yellow peril"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Dec 23 06:25:09 MST 1999

January 3, 2000

The Nation Magazine



Short History of the Twentieth Century

In August 1900, troops of the Western powers broke the Boxer siege of the
embassies in Peking,* looted the Empress Dowager’s summer palace and thus
destroyed for a time the valiant nationalist effort to halt colonial
exploitation of China. And now, here we are at the other end of the
century, listening to leading lights of progressive American politics from
Nader’s fair-trade campaign, the AFL-CIO and assorted NGOs, plus leading
lights of right-wing American politics, all calling for China to be denied
admission to the WTO. What happened in between?

Oh, it’s an old story now. China had a revolution, a series of revolutions
in fact. Other poor countries did too. They tried to redistribute land and
wealth, build an industrial base, foster internal demand, get a fair price
for the commodities they needed to sell abroad. The Western powers didn’t
care for that, any more than they liked the Boxers. They mustered armies to
crush these revolutions, hired mercenaries, saboteurs and spies. They never
relented, never forgave. Some revolutions struggled on for several decades,
in varying states of siege, boycotts, embargoes, economic sabotage.
One—Cuba—survives. Whole continents drowned in blood.

As the world nears its rendezvous with the third Christian millennium, a
refined system of exploitation has been put into almost universally
successful execution. The poor countries are held in helotry just as they
were in the colonial world of the nineteenth century, their assigned task
still the provision of raw materials or cheap goods manufactured under
imperial license. There’s nothing new about "globalization7 just
elaboration of the process. To insure that these poor countries continue to
depend on exports for survival, the Western powers have made sure that the
possibility of robust internal markets is thwarted. Austerity programs
imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have laid
waste the domestic sectors of these economies, creating small elites
servile to the imperial powers, amid vast oceans of poverty and desperation.

So awful have been the cycles of repression and rapine that some countries
are in advanced stages of physical disintegration. The devastation of
Hurricane Mitch in Central America can be laid in large part to the
crushing of all bids for land reform thirty and forty years earlier, with
the CIA acting as overall impresario. Peasants have been forced off good
land onto marginal terrain, which they necessarily overexploit, thus
rendering it vulnerable to flooding and consequent landslides and erosion.

So should we not regard with at least mixed emotions the launching of a
campaign by liberals to deny China entry to the

WTO? Should we not reflect at least for a moment on the fact that the talks
in Seattle broke down in part be cause African and Caribbean nations
regarded proposals for labor and environmental standards as no more than a
protectionist ruse by the Western powers? "China, we’re coming atcha,"
yells Mike Dolan, the Nader group’s organizer in Seattle, as he discusses
the next item of business. "There’s no question about it. The next item of
business is China." Jeff Faux, director of the AFL-CIO—backed Economic
Policy Institute, tells reporters that with China in the WTO it will be
impossible to get labor and environmental standards installed, because
China’s too big—presumably for the type of coercion that could be brought
to bear on, say, Indonesia. "The China vote is going to become proxy for
all our concerns about globalization," says Denise Mitchell of the AFL-CIO.

So who exactly is the enemy here? China? The WTO? Or capitalism? After all,
the WTO has been merely an expression of what capitalist chieftains of the
Western world want to lock in. The corporations could probably accept in
some form those famous labor and environmental standards. It doesn’t take
much by way of a pledge or a few more cents a month or an itinerant bunch
of inspectors to bring most of the NGO watchdogs to heel.

Do I feel comfortable at the sight of Western progressives execrating
China? No, even though I know there are Chinese elites oppressing Chinese
masses, inflicting dreadful working conditions and pay scales. The
progressive intellectuals from the Economic Policy Institute who denounce
China’s "state-controlled economic system" as "market distorting" (thus
Robert Scott in Working USA) aren’t so far removed from those who have
administered the siege of Cuba all these years. Many liberal NGO types are
interventionist by disposition. The Somalia debacle, and to some extent the
Kosovo nightmare, were their shows.

There’s no win-win situation for workers of the world, in the current era
at least. American steelworkers here do better, ergo Russian and South
Korean steelworkers overseas do worse. A garment worker here loses a job, a
Central American makes a dime. Capitalism dictates the choices. So what can
we do here? I don’t think we should be trying to fix up the WTO or keep
China out. That’s not the sort of currency radicals should have truck with.
Our currency is solidarity. We should be making war on the IMF and World
Bank, helping poor countries fight to develop internal markets, hence
better-paid workers and stronger agriculture.

We have plenty to denounce right here. The Jubilee 2000 campaign against
World Bank bonds is a great thing. The campaign against the bank was
terrific, at least until bank president James Wolfensohn was smart enough
to co-opt some of the relevant NGOs by hiring many of their technocrats.
The United States has more than 3,600 on death row, 2 million in prison, in
hundreds of hellish dungeons like California’s Pelican Bay. We’re the
world’s leading arms peddler, the world’s leading polluter. We don’t need,
on the edge of 2000, at the end of this imperial century, to be signing on
to a Yellow Peril campaign.


* My grandfather Henry, a diplomat, was in the British Legation in Peking
in those years. Peter Fleming writes in his Siege at Peking: "The
well-stocked library of Mr. Cockburn, the First Secretary, provided some
with solace. It included several reference books dealing with the Indian
Mutiny, and accounts of the relief of Lucknow were in keen demand; the fate
of Cawnpore was less closely studied."

Louis Proyect
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