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Tag: "china"

Apologizing for Exploitation

[ 55 ] January 30, 2012 |

Tom Krazit at Paid Content has a piece up apologizing for Apple’s exploitation of Chinese workers in the creation of its products. Krazit argues that Apple really can’t do anything about the problem–the jobs aren’t coming back to the US, it would be too risky for Apple to open its own factory, and China might not allow any real reform anyway.

Most of this is hogwash. The idea that an enormous multinational corporation which just had one of the most profitable quarters in the history of any corporation in the history of the human race is completely incapable of paying its workers a living wage would be laughable if it it didn’t shill for immorality. Take this paragraph for instance:

The truth is that an entire consumer electronics industry depends on these factories for their livelihoods; the dozens of companies and millions of people that have made a handsome living on the spread of mobile technology, gaming consoles, and high-definition televisions into everyone’s lives. And China depends on the demand for its manufacturing services driven by Western consumers who want quality goods at a low price, knowing that few other operations are able to hit those targets as consistently as its homegrown manufacturing base.

OK, but how does this get in the way of paying a decent wage. Apple prices are not low and people are desperate to own its products, but even given the general principle that people want to buy things for cheap, it’s not at all clear that you can’t provide reasonably priced goods and pay people good wages. We did this during the great period of unionization in this country after World War II; admittedly, our level of consumer spending was not so high as it is today, but people also witnessed rapidly increasing consumer power during those years. Even outside of that, given Apple’s gargantuan profits, there’s no way they can’t ensure better working conditions through throwing their considerable corporate weight around. Those contractors do whatever the corporations want them to do. They want so much product at so much cost. And they get it to them. This does not have to be a constant downward. If the corporations want the contractors to pay more, that will happen.

Krazit’s one point worth serious discussion is the role of the Chinese government, who may well be obfuscating any information coming out about their workers’ lives and who could theoretically provide a structural barrier to a corporation wanting to pay its workers more (assuming any of us take seriously the idea that Apple executives really care all that much about how these workers live, which I most certainly do not). If China truly sees its future as providing cheap manufacturing labor, I can see why it might want to discourage one company from paying too much in the fear of driving off other companies. But that’s happening already. As China begins transitioning to a more mature and wealthy society and as workers get sick of dying in factories and having babies born with cancer, companies are moving to Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other nations with working conditions even more wretched. And while I don’t doubt the power of the Chinese government, I do not at all buy the presumption that Apple is somehow helpless to improve their workers’ lives in the face of the Chinese government. This is patently absurd.

Apple could do any number of things if it were serious about allowing its workers to live better lives. It could slightly reduce profits and earmark this money specifically for workers’ wages. It could open its own factory in China, hiring skilled technicians and creating a modern version of a company town (a scenario also ripe for abuse, but it isn’t worse than the present situation). It could then allow western reporters, environmental consultations, human rights groups, and whoever else full access to that factory. Even if you take Krazit’s point seriously that they jobs can’t leave China because that’s where the expertise lies (which begs the question of how computers were made before they were in China and what will happen when computer companies move their factories to nations with ever-more degraded labor), it hardly means that corporations are helpless to do anything at all about their workers. It’s that they don’t really want to do so.

Triangle Trade

[ 22 ] January 4, 2012 |

This week’s Over the Horizon column suggests that the Russian arms industry is in for some long term trouble:

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex sustained the massive Soviet military institution, which regularly gobbled up 15-25 percent of the nation’s GDP. In an odd and unexpected twist to the end of the Cold War, the Russian arms industry has turned to sustaining itself by arming a pair of Asian giants: Arms exports to China and India have proven lucrative for Russia — and have even had a synergistic and competitive quality. The unease each country has felt due to the other increasing its military capability has led to higher revenues for Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-owned arms exporter. For the post-Cold War Russian arms industry, this trade has represented a boon, helping to replace lost customers in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Russian military itself. However, this situation is almost certainly unsustainable in the long run, as both China and India appear to be outgrowing their dependence on the Russian military-industrial complex. This will spell trouble for Russia, which has had great difficulty developing exports based on anything other than arms or energy.


Pacific Bloggingheads

[ 2 ] December 19, 2011 |

Last week I blogged heads with Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute:

Tragically, we failed to have a forward looking conversation about a post-Kim Jong Il North Korea. However, last year’s Patterson simulation involved a North Korean succession crisis…

On Selling Taiwan…

[ 21 ] December 4, 2011 |

So you’ve probably seen something about Paul Kane’s “Sell Taiwan” op-ed in the New York Times; effectively, Kane’s suggestion would mean that the US would guarantee non-intervention in any PRC-ROC dispute in exchange for forgiveness of a portion of the Chinese held US debt.  I’m not sure exactly how the economics would work out, other than to say that the effects would probably be minimal.  But “selling” Taiwan would also relieve the US of the (self-imposed) responsibility of defending Taiwan from China, potentially creating the conditions for a more stable strategic framework in East Asia.

Kane argues that the op-ed was intended as satire, designed to force us to think through our foreign policy values and commitments. While the attempt seems somewhat clumsy to me (and the rejoinders to his critics even more clumsy), I think there’s considerable value in these exercises.  As I’ve mentioned before, I always assign David Brin’s Thor Meets Captain America to my National Security Policy course, along with Arnold Wolfers’ National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol and Charles Lindblom’s The Science of Muddling Through. The Brin brings the process of choosing between values into relief, and opens the door to questions such as “under what circumstances would we exchange Florida for peace and security?”  And so the responses to Kane’s hypothetical about Taiwan could range widely between discussions of Taiwan’s direct military value, of its reputation value, and of the intrinsic value of defending a democracy from an authoritarian state. These then could lead to productive conversations about the relation between military, reputational, and intrinsic value, how they interact, and so forth. These are not bad conversations to have, even if you doubt the wisdom of selling out the ROC.



[ 9 ] November 23, 2011 |

Last night I accidentally watched the bulk of the GOP national security debate.  There was certainly a degree of entertainment value, and there’s something to be said for being part of a community of live tweeters.  Rick Perry made Michelle Bachmann make sense on Pakistan, Newt tried to play the front-runner, Ron Paul got some interesting applause lines, and as Dan Drezner and a few others noted, no one talked about China until the very end.  Fortunately, today’s column is about why we should talk about China:

President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Australia highlighted, in a very deliberate way, a decision to shift U.S. attention and resources away from the Middle East and toward East Asia. Obama’s remarks to the Australian Parliament, combined with his announcement of a new basing agreement at Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast, framed several days of discussions on the role that the United States would play in Asian power politics. Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute of International Politics, an Australian foreign policy think tank, suggested that Obama’s speech in Canberra was as important and consequential as the Cairo speech of 2009. Of course, the speech itself is only worth as much as the underlying changes in policy that follow. In concrete terms, what does it mean when Obama that, “as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future”? And how will we know that the United States is following through on this commitment?


Global Times Interview

[ 15 ] November 17, 2011 |

Last week the Global Times e-interviewed me about the possibility of war between the United States and China. Here’s the result, along with answers to the same questions from Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary-general of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences.

Red Lines

[ 1 ] November 9, 2011 |

My latest column at WPR focuses on transparency and “red lines” between US and Chinese interests:

There is no ready solution to this problem, because it lies at the heart of all diplomatic activity. Absent exceptional intelligence work, the motivation and resolve of diplomatic partners will always remain something of a mystery. A dense set of relationships and interactions undoubtedly helps create transparency, as interlocutors become familiar enough with each other to recognize the difference between real red lines and their rhetorical doppelgangers. This density of interactions involves not just high-level diplomatic meetings, but also commercial and military relationships. The RAND authors suggest that the United States work to commit itself to the defense and support of regional allies. While such a policy might threaten China with encirclement, it could also help reduce uncertainty; public commitments manifested through strong bilateral relationships are difficult to abandon, even in a crisis. However, even a policy of commitment is only as valuable as the capabilities devoted to its maintenance, and the U.S. advantage over China in this regard will become strained over the coming decades.


Mitt Romney and China

[ 7 ] November 8, 2011 |

I have a piece up at Right Web on how the GOP Presidential field approaches relations with China, with a focus on Mitt Romney.  Long story short, while confrontation is the word of the day, there are a lot of people with a lot of money in the GOP who don’t want the neocons anywhere near the commercial relationship.  Check it out.

Steve Jobs’ Vision of America

[ 106 ] November 4, 2011 |

When Steve Jobs met with President Obama in 2010, Jobs told the president that he would only get one term:

You’re headed for a one-term presidency,” he told Obama at the start of their meeting, insisting that the administration needed to be more business-friendly. As an example, Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where “regulations and unnecessary costs” make it difficult for them.

Jobs also criticized America’s education system, saying it was “crippled by union work rules,” noted Isaacson. “Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year.

If China is our model, is this how Steve Jobs saw America’s future? “We found that across the four Chinese-owned copper mines in Zambia, there were persistent labor abuses, particularly in regards to health and safety, long hours of work and anti-union activities,” said Matt Wells, with Human Rights Watch in Lusaka, summarizing the more than 100-page report.”

Or what about this? “Dozens of miners have been trapped in a coal mine in China after a “rock burst”, officials say.
Four miners were killed and 50 more are missing after the accident, which happened late on Thursday in the city of Sanmenxia in Henan province.”

Or this?

Or should I be saying anything negative about National Hero and Demigod Steve Jobs at all? After all, with him not around to give our lives of ennui meaning through gadgets, what’s the point of living? Clearly, worker death and pollution is a worthy model so long as I can download a new app every day!

Bomb Beijing! Er… Tehran!

[ 35 ] November 1, 2011 |

Hey now, it’s not as if knowing whether China has nuclear weapons is at all relevant to the practice of American foreign policy:

I do view China as a potential military threat to the United States… we already have superiority in terms of our military capability, and I plan to get away from making cutting our defense a priority and make investing in our military capability a priority, going back to my statement: peace through strength and clarity. So yes they’re a military threat. They’ve indicated that they’re trying to develop nuclear capability and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have. So yes, we have to consider them a military threat.

In the interest of balance and of due fairness to Herman Cain, the argument against the Chinese nuclear program is startlingly similar to the case against the Iranian, although I don’t believe that Iran is buidling aircraft carriers…

On a related note, the thought that Avigdor Lieberman was the only remaining obstacle to an Israeli-Iranian war is… alarming.  At times like this, I take some solace in the fact that the world exploding is Good for Rob. If the long nightmare of peace and prosperity that prevailed under Bill Clinton still held, I might not even have job…

Rehabilitating Caligula

[ 64 ] October 30, 2011 |

Is Caligula misunderstood? Scott Mclemee reviews Aloys Winterling’s efforts in this regard:

But what if all of these claims about Caligula were wrong, or at least overblown? What if he was, in fact, completely sane — his awful reputation the product of a smear campaign?

In 2003, Aloys Winterling, a professor of ancient history at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, published a book arguing that the emperor’s strange behavior was, in effect, normal Roman politics carried to extremes. Caligula played hardball with his enemies, giving them every reason to exact posthumous revenge. But the truth could be separated out from the slanders. The volume is now available in English translation as Caligula: A Biography

But Winterling sees the turning point in Caligula’s reign as strictly political, not biomedical. It came when he learned of a plot to overthrow him that involved a number of senators. This was not necessarily paranoia. Winterling quotes a later emperor’s remark that rulers’ “claims to have uncovered a conspiracy are not believed until they have been killed.”

In any event, Caligula responded with a vengeance, which inspired at least two more plots against him (not counting the final one that succeeded); and so things escalated. Most of the evidence of Caligula’s madness can actually be taken, in Winterling’s interpretation, as ways he expressed contempt for the principle of shared power — and, even more, for the senators themselves.

Giving his horse a palace and a staff of servants and announcing that the beast would be made consul, for example, can be understood as a kind of taunt. “The households of the senators,” writes Winterling, “represented a central manifestation of their social status…. Achieving the consulship remained the most important goal of an aristocrat’s career.” To put his horse in the position of a prominent aristocrat, then, was a deliberate insult. It implied that the comparison could also be made in the opposite direction.

So Caligula was crazy … like a fox. Winterling reads even Caligula’s self-apotheosis as a form of vengeance, rather than a symptom of mental illness. Senators had to pretend to believe that he conversed with the gods as an equal. Declaring himself divine gave him ever more humiliating ways to make them grovel — to rub their noses in the reality of his brute and unchecked power.

It was one-upsmanship on the grandest possible scale. Beyond a certain point, I’m not sure where anger ends and madness begins. But Winterling makes a plausible case that his reputation was worse than his behavior. The memory of their degradation by Caligula gave the aristocracy every reason to embellish his real cruelties with stories that were contrived later. In the period just after the emperor’s death, even his worst enemies never accused him of incest; that charge came decades afterwards.

Interesting, but here’s why I’m not convinced. Every early emperor (and really, every emperor) endured roughly the same political structure as Caligula, in the sense of struggling with plots from the Senate and having to deal with an unspecified power responsibilities.* Yet not every emperor has a reputation for insanity; some emperors were relatively well regarded by contemporaries, others regarded as cruel but effective, etc. Maybe Winterling explains how Caligula’s political maneuvering so enraged the contemporary elite (and let’s be clear, Suetonius is not a contemporary, suggesting that the perception of Caligula’s insanity was enduring) that they decided to depict him as more insane and tyrannical than every other Caesar, or maybe he was actually more insane and tyrannical than every other Caesar.  Given that he was outlasted in that position by such prizes as Nero, Domitian, and Commodus, I’m inclined toward the latter interpretation.  But then I haven’t read the book, so take with many grains of salt etc. etc.

It’s also worth noting that to the extent the Brass/Guccione/Vidal film has a political perspective on Caligula’s career, it mirrors Winterling’s argument; McDowell’s Caligula is crazy, but his craziness is a reaction to/accommodation of the paranoia and corruption of the contemporary Roman elite.  Haven’t seen it in years (I mean… erm, ever), but to the best of my recollection we’re supposed to sympathize with Caligula at the end.

*This may deserve a post of its own, but the occasional comment over the years has made it necessary to point out that a monarchy and a dictatorship are not the same thing; the latter represents a much more direct relationship between head of state and political power than the former, which should really be understood as a mechanism for managing intra-elite relations in a feudal, pre-feudal, and quasi-feudal societies. Monarchies attempt (with often middling success) to minimize the impact of any given head of state, while dictatorships (in their 20th century form) attempt to maximize the individual power of the autocrat. The key virtue of a hereditary monarchy is to ameliorate problems of succession, which it does by creating a presumptive heir and by situating that heir within a traditional system of formal and informal limits on his power.  The latter is necessary to managing the “blithering idiot” problem sometimes produced by the former.  Obviously, monarchies historically often failed to deliver on one or the other of these promises, but the system nevertheless represents an effort to solve serious problems of political authority.  In Rome, it was ideologically (and for a time constitutionally)  impossible to maintain a true monarchy, even thought many emperors did hand off power in a quasi-hereditary fashion. However, I think it’s almost certainly true that a true monarchy, with a regularized system of transferring power and a set of formal and informal limits on the power of the emperor, would have been superior to the imperial system, which obviously failed to solve the “blithering idiot” problem on its own terms.

I think that this becomes clear when comparing “undergraduate textbook” discussions of Eastern monarchies versus European monarchies.  Discussion of European dynastic history are even at this late date very personalistic, featuring discussion of the personal qualities of whatever Peter, Henry, Frederick, John et al happens to be the monarch in question, while backgrounding discussion of contextual dynastic issues.  Undergraduate textbook versions of Chinese and Japanese history, however, are almost remarkable in the absence of actual individual monarchs, with the exception of a few dynastic founders.  Rather, the emphasis in on the Qin, Han, Tang et al dynasties in the Chinese case, and the various imperial periods in the Japanese.  This emphasizes that each dynasty/period was actually a system of governance with formal and informal rules, rather than simply a succession of hereditary monarchs.  I think that historians can get away with this in the Asian context because undergraduates (not to mention reviewers, etc.) are far less familiar with the personalities in Asia than they are in Europe, and so don’t rage when the textbook excludes detailed discussion of the foibles of Richard the Lion Hearted et al.

Russia and China: Countries with Interests Beyond Messing with Texas

[ 7 ] October 19, 2011 |

My latest at WPR takes a look at the Russia-China arms trade:

By the middle of the last decade, however, the factors that made the relationship so strong had begun to subside. The sophistication and reliability of Chinese military equipment improved, while the quality of Russian industrial production declined. Some Russians also began to express concern about the growing military might of China, with which many border issues remain unsettled. By contrast, the military relationship between Russia and India appears to have remained relatively healthy, even in the face of recent disagreements over the price and delivery schedule of a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier.

The problem of intellectual property rights also looms large in the Sino-Russian arms trade. Russia remains concerned that China will not respect Russian intellectual property rights for arms transferred to China or licensed for Chinese production. Those concerns are well-founded. China’s lack of respect for intellectual property rights in civilian fieldsremains a sore spot with the United States. Moreover, China has clearly copied Russian weapon systems that were transferred in the past. While Russia and China have engaged in repeated discussions over intellectual property concerns in the past four years, China’s ability and interest in complying with Russian requirements remains suspect. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Russia now views China as a major competitor in the international arms market. If Russia believes that sales to China will actively undercut the position of its exports to the rest of the world, then the future of Russia-China arms trade seems grim.

The major problems afflicting the Russia-China arms relationship can, in large part, be traced to China’s growing power and influence. Russian desperation and Chinese weakness produced a great match in the 1990s, but as the situations in Moscow and especially Beijing have improved, tensions have inevitably developed. The problem lies not simply with Russian fears of Chinese power, but also with China’s “natural” desire to play a global role commensurate with its strength. For China, this means becoming a major player in the international arms market, not to mention ignoring demands from Moscow and Washington that it reform its intellectual property policies.

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