Too often, we, even liberals, create politically convenient artificial barriers between the globalized economy and national boundaries. Specifically, we have outsourced the vast majority of our industrial production overseas while absconding responsibility for its outcomes. This might mean saying that we American consumers have no responsibility for factory conditions in Bangladesh and Vietnam because “those people should demand change from their government.” This common formulation ignores the power structure behind the present apparel industry situation, where American clothing companies will simply move production abroad if “those people” do demand that change.
The same goes for carbon emissions. We note the growth of Chinese carbon emissions and sometimes use it as an excuse why it isn’t worth the U.S. doing anything about if the Chinese don’t care. But again, a lot of that Chinese production is for the American market and our companies choosing to export production to China make those emissions as much American responsibility as Chinese.
And while China does lead the world in carbon emissions, the U.S. still far outpaces the rest of the world in carbon emissions per person:
This all does not mean we should not be concerned about Chinese emissions, but it does mean that a) a lot of those emissions are in fact the responsibility of the United States and b) the United States still produces vastly more emissions per capita and needs to take care of its own house before blaming the Chinese for why we can’t do anything about climate change.
More broadly, it reinforces my very strong belief that in a globalized economy, national law is a hindrance that helps corporations take advantage of hundreds of different jurisdictions, many of which are easily bought off, in order to avoid responsibility. Short of a global legal framework that would actually hold corporations accountable, which is a pipe dream, we have to demand that the U.S. government regulate corporate behavior wherever they operate if they want the advantages of working, living, and trading in the U.S.
Have to give Yao Ming a lot of credit. He could have taken the Jordan/Kobe/(to a lesser extent) LeBron path of superstardom, but instead he has engaged in political causes. Going the Jabbar/Ali/Jim Brown route has no doubt made him enemies, but his work on behalf of wildlife conservation in China is very, very important.
This is primary benefit of outsourcing work and supplies from the United States. That goods are produced far, far away from the eyes of consumers benefits the corporations tremendously. It means that when the Rana Plaza factory in Savar, Bangladesh collapses, no Americans see the deaths that result from a system that provides them cheap clothing at Wal-Mart, Gap, and other retailers. That’s very different from the Triangle Fire, when New Yorkers were outraged when they personally saw the deaths of the women who made their clothing. They acted and conditions in the textile factories improved. Today, most of us have absolutely no idea what the conditions of work are in the places that make our clothing, that grow our food, that produce our paint and glass and steel and auto parts. That’s exactly how companies want it. When it comes to meat production, you have states like Idaho passing ag-gag bills, making it a crime to document what happens in a meat production factory. Knowledge is indeed power and the meat producers want to make sure that you have none of it so they have all the power.
One of the complexities of modern capitalism though is that American business don’t just want to outsource production. They also want to open up new markets for their products. That’s certainly true for fast food corporations, who have vastly expanded around the world over the past two decades. This means that in at least some places, production and consumption takes place in the same country and thus when the supply chain system inevitably fails as the big corporations want to push down costs and the suppliers respond through cutting corners on safety, outrage results:
The Chinese outlets of McDonald’s and KFC have stopped using meat from a Shanghai company after a local television news program accused the supplier of using chicken and beef past their expiration dates, setting off an investigation by food-safety officials.
The program, broadcast Sunday evening on Dragon TV, showed hidden-camera footage of workers at a meat-processing plant operated by Shanghai Husi Food using out-of-date chicken and beef to make burger patties and chicken products for McDonald’s and KFC. In some cases, workers were shown scooping up meat that had fallen onto the assembly line floor and throwing it back into a processing machine.
In response, the Chinese units of McDonald’s and KFC said in news releases posted from their official Sina Weibo social-media accounts that they had halted use of all products from Shanghai Husi, which is owned by the OSI Group, based in Aurora, Ill. Starbucks also said it had pulled sandwiches with chicken from Shanghai Husi from the shelves of its stores in China. Starbucks said a supplier for the sandwiches had used the meat.
When people see footage of horrors they act. That is what has happened in China. It’s what happened at Triangle and when the Cuyahoga River burned and during the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. Thus, the corporate strategy becomes making sure you see nothing. In this case, the curtain was pulled back, but just in one factory. McDonald’s and KFC have no intention of running a tighter ship with their meat suppliers and they certainly don’t want to run their own meat production sites, although this is an entirely reasonable solution for them. Rather, they want the problem to go away. Such disgusting conditions could be taking place in 100 Chinese meat production factories, just as they could be (and are) in the United States meat industry. It is precisely this kind of information getting out that leads to ag-gag bills here and I’d be shocking if the fast food companies aren’t having behind the scenes talks with Chinese authorities to clamp down on such information becoming public there. That this production facility is owned by an company based in the United States should remind you that there’s no reason to think what you eat is safer, not in a system dominated by exploitative New Gilded Age era capitalism without proper regulatory frameworks and vastly underfunded inspection agencies.
I don’t understand why China would force this guy to serve seven months in one of its prisons making Christmas lights for the American market. This is technically illegal since the U.S. has banned the import of prison labor-made goods ever since the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, but neither the American government or corporations have no real interest in enforcing this law and therefore the Chinese easily get around it by selling the goods to third-parties and the American stores don’t ask any questions.
But why not just deport the guy? Obviously if you make an American sociologist serve time in one of your prison, he’s going to write about the conditions upon release. Why bring the bad publicity on yourself?
Beijing’s water authorities have defended their plan to ease the capital’s water shortage by processing seawater from the highly polluted Bohai Gulf, a mainland newspaper reported.
The capital’s municipal government has announced a project to build a desalination plan in Tangshan in Hebei province to process one million tonnes of water a day by 2019 to ease Beijing’s water crisis.
Wang Xiaoshui, the general manager of the project, told The Beijing News the plan was feasible and dismissed concerns the water would be undrinkable. The water will be treated to strip it of salt, heavy metals and bacteria and will be drinkable straight from the tap.
The plan has prompted public concerns because Bohai, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea, has some of China’s most polluted waters.
I have said before that the greatest challenge both China and India face in continuing their rise as world powers is the ability to manage their environmental issues. I tend to believe China has a better chance of this than India, but sending polluted water to your capital for consumption does make me think twice. I suppose the Chinese could develop systems that truly make this drinkable, but somehow I’m skeptical.
More than 30,000 staff at the Yue Yuen Industrial (Holdings) factory in Dongguan city have been striking for several days in protest at unpaid social insurance payments, said US-based China Labour Watch, adding that police had beaten and detained several protesters.
China is facing labour unrest as its economic growth slows and as factories in its southern manufacturing heartland report a shortage of workers, prompting rising demands from staff.
Yue Yuen says on its website that it produces shoes for foreign brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma and New Balance.
Once again, there is no good reason why international corporations should not have liability for injustice committed against workers making their products. Every cent of money not paid to the Chinese workers is profit for the corporations. Given the harsh downward pressure apparel companies place on their contractors to keep prices low, they incentivize ripping off the workers. This system exists to absolve western companies of any responsibility for what happens in the factories, even though they choose where to contract the work, what prices they will pay for the product, and how much they will sell it for. This is an unjust and morally bankrupt system that can be fought by western citizens and governments demanding accountability, including the application of a broad set of international laws that companies must follow regardless of where they site their work or who they contract
it out to. Without this, the race to the bottom around the globe will continue.
The World Health Organization released a report yesterday showing that 7 million people died in 2012 from air pollution. This was 1 out of every 8 global deaths and twice previous estimates. These deaths are highly concentrated in Asia and result from two sources. First, women are dying from indoor cooking stoves in nations like India. This killed 3.3 million people in southeast Asia alone. Second, air pollution in Chinese cities is killing people left and right. That led to 2.6 million deaths in southeast Asia. The first problem is certainly very real and there are a lot of experts and NGOs working on cooking stove issues. The second is more interesting because a good bit of this comes from the outsourcing of American industrialization. Of course, Chinese industrialization is quite complicated and results from many factors, the most important of which is the Chinese state’s desire for immediate modernization at all costs. But it’s not like American consumers have no culpability here.
Americans used to die from this pollution. In late October 1948, a weather inversion hit the town of Donora, Pennsylvania. A steel and zinc-producing town for U.S. Steel southwest of Pittsburgh, Donora sat in a valley where under certain weather conditions air would stagnate. As it did so, it mixed with pollutants from the smokestacks belching pollution into the atmosphere. Normally, the pollution was bad but the winds would move it out of the valley. During periods of air stagnation though, Donora’s environmental problems, already bad, became a poisonous soup. Nearly all vegetation within a half-mile of U.S. Steel’s Donora Zinc Works was dead even before the disaster struck. On October 27, air pollution and weather patterns became a deadly combination. A thick yellowish smog hung over the town as people breathed in poisonous gases such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfuric acid, and fluorine. The smoke lasted until November 2. Despite heroic efforts by local fire and police forces, as well as the town’s eight doctors who worked night and day, twenty people in Donora died and another 7000 became sick. Nearly 800 pets also died.
That doesn’t happen here anymore. Americans rallied to pass environmental legislation, including several successive Clean Air Acts, to force companies to clean up their operations. But the response of corporations was to move abroad in order to keep on polluting. NAFTA facilitated this. The increased air pollution companies could emit meant profit. It also meant over 36,000 children visiting Ciudad Juarez emergency rooms between 1997 and 2001 because of breathing problems. Mexican federal spending on environmental protection fell by half between 1994 and 1999 at the same time that American corporations polluted the nation like never before.
Eventually much of this production moved to China, whether directly outsourced or to be exported to the United States as the U.S. stopped producing much steel. In January 2014 alone, the United States imported 3.2 million tons of Chinese steel. American corporate interests do not own these Chinese steel companies, but they do own thousands of other heavily polluting factories in the country. Recreating pollution is why companies move from the U.S. to China. They want to avoid “environmental nannies” as companies have called Natural Resource Defense Council health director Linda Greer, who frequently writes about these issues. The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, a leading Chinese environmental NGO, released a report in October 2012, detailing the massive pollution by apparel factories that contract with U.S. corporations like Disney. The report noted subcontractors for Ralph Lauren discharge wastewater filled with dyes and other pollutants into streams and do not use pollution reduction devices on coal boilers, thus releasing extra pollutants into the air. Chinese people are protesting the pollution but their government has little tolerance for these protests, which pleases foreign investors. A recent scientific estimate shows that in 2006, U.S. exports were responsible for 7.4 percent of Chinese sulfur dioxide, 5.7 percent of nitrogen oxide, and 4.6 percent of carbon monoxide. Earlier estimates suggested one million people die in China from air pollution each year, but we now see it is much higher. How many of these people fall thanks to outsourcing? It’s impossible to know, but the answer is some.
How many of those lives could be saved with better environmental standards on products imported to the United States? American companies may not be responsible for all or even most of the suffering of the Chinese working class from pollution, but they certainly contribute to it. Outsourcing production means that we as Americans look overseas and talk about Chinese air pollution, but we are completely unaware of our responsibility for at least part of that smog. In a globalized economy and integrated world, it’s dishonest to separate out responsibility based around what is convenient for us. We hear that ideas and capital and jobs flow around the world, but labor standards and environmental standards, well that’s just impossible. Not only is that an incorrect assertion–it is of course possible to set global standards at some level–but it also serves the interest of capital, as we see the pollution happening across the globe as something totally disconnected from our lives and something we can do nothing about it. This mentality generates profits for corporations.
Government agencies are to test a new design of aerial drone to see whether it might help tackle the air pollution that often blankets much of the mainland, state media reported.
The vehicle will spray chemicals that freeze pollutants, allowing them to fall to the ground.
The tests would be led by the China Meteorological Administration and carried out later this month at airports and ports, Xinhua said.
The drone has been developed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China and has a paragliding wing, which allows it to carry three times more weight than the fixed-wing version, making it more efficient and cost-effective.
Premier Li Keqiang said in his speech at the National People’s Congress in Beijing yesterday the government would “declare war” on pollution. It would focus, in part, on reducing PM2.5, the fine particles of pollutants thought to be most harmful to people’s health.
I’m sure that the impact of these chemicals on health have been very carefully tested and that this project will 1) show that technology can solve all our problems, 2) have no unintended consequences because technological interventions in the environment never have unintended consequences and human control of nature has no problems, 3) work.
While we all know of the environmental disaster that is China and the huge problems the Chinese government has had in managing that pollution, especially given the emphasis it places on economic growth and the control local party officials have over these matters in the their localities, it’s also true that China is eating our lunch when it comes to promoting solar power and getting facilities installed. Whether this happens fast enough to mitigate China’s enormous impact upon climate change, well I’m skeptical. But unlike the United States, the Chinese government also sees the necessity to transitioning to renewables.