Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why Not Tibet?

Ben Domenech recently posted about China's crackdown on Tibet and wants to know why conservatives have essentially ignored the issue. It's true, he points out, that this is normally seen as a left-liberal issue, but he can't find any sort of ideological reason for the political right to be silent (although a few voices here and there are found).

He's right, of course: this is a case like Sudan, where the human rights of a religious and ethnic minority are very clearly being violated by a repressive regime. He doesn't mention it in his post, but similar persecution occurs regarding Christians (including forced "ordinations" of Catholic "bishops") and the Muslim Uighur population in western China, plus the Falun Gong which everyone's heard about.

I'm going to say that the reasons are practical, rather than political (don't think I'm criticizing Ben: he's a smart cookie and knows that this is the reason). It's practical out of both political necessity and out of human nature.

On the one hand, America has a lot on its plate. We've got uncontrolled immigration from Mexico on our southern border, a War on Terror going on, tinpot dictators in Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and Iran threatening to overthrow the Great Satan and install either a Worker's Paradise or Sharia law and dhimmitude, a weakened dollar, a huge national deficit, a trade imbalance, and...well, you can probably add another half-dozen things off the top of your head. China isn't an immediate threat to us and doesn't appear to be on the verge of invading (or re-invading...) Taiwan, Vietnam, Siberia, or the Korean peninsula. We've got bigger fish to fry, politically speaking. We're saying "nice doggy" right now because our stick is otherwise engaged: we only barely managed to attack Iraq while still officially at war with it and couldn't even muster any sort of will to stop the genocide in Darfur. What does anyone expect our government to do versus a country with about a fifth of the world's population and who is a huge trading partner of ours?

Yes, the idealists would say that we should declare an official boycott, not to mention skipping out on the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer. I wish we could, but with all that's going on we don't need the a billion screaming Chinese ticked off at us as well. They know that they can physically appropriate any of the countries/regions around them if they put their mind to it and we're in no position to expel or even stop them short of maybe South Korea.

This gets us to both the solution and the second part of the problem. The solution is for we as ordinary Americans to declare an unofficial boycott of Chinese products. I already do this, wavering between an outright ban and only buying things Made in China if I can't find an alternative. The problem is that human nature, especially among Americans, has a hard time staying focused on a distant, foreign threat for too long. The girl in your class you want to ask out is of very high importance to us, but the possibility that the slippers you're wearing might have been made by the slave labor of pro-democracy protesters isn't very high in people's minds. An awareness campaign might help, but who would do it? Social-issues groups are focused on domestic matters. Among those more economically minded there's a Catch-22: China is "Communist" so the political left supports them, but they also make production less costly so the political right doesn't want to spoil a good thing, either.

What's needed is for everyday people to demand that their things be made elsewhere. This is going to be tough: you can probably find a reason not to buy from just about anyone if you search hard enough. However, it's not impossible. Most of the rest Asia and Central America have manufacturing capacity (not to mention, you know, ourselves...). If everyone, for instance, who bought a hammer decided to get the one made in Taiwan or the Philippines instead of the one made in China and left a comment card saying why they did so, you'd see store managers factor this into their decision-making.

It's not that easy, though: some things only seem to be made in China these days (sandals and dumbbells come to mind from my own experience), while things sold online rarely list the country of origin unless it's Made in the USA. You can't really expect people to call a fistfull of companies every time they want to buy a new vacuum cleaner or toilet plunger (besides, if you need a toilet plunger and the grocery store only has ones made in China...well, you've got yourself a dilemma, haven't you?). Chinese stuff is also inexpensive, and that's an important factor as well.

I had an idea to start a website where people could check where the products they want are made. Contributors would take it on themselves to cover a niche and report back; I did this before buying my laptop and discovered that only Dell and Fujitsu make their computers in places other than in China (although being Taiwanese companies, I suspect Asus and Acer do so as well). This is obviously easier for things like appliances and harder for toilet plungers and dental floss (although given recent events I wouldn't dare put anything made in China into my mouth).

In short, there's just no real support for the matter because it's out of sight and would involve an awful lot of effort to remedy. If we can help lay a foundation, it might give an exposure effort more traction. Taking on all of China is political suicide, but forcing a chain like Target or a brand like Sony to certify their products as "Human Rights Safe" would be helpful. If people can shop for "organic" food and "fair-trade" coffee then they have the will to do this as well.

There are some problems with this idea, it should be pointed out. The biggest is that if done wrong it could be like the radical Abolitionists who were a major factor for the sparking of the Civil War; this needs to be not only a peaceful protest but one with a reasonable scope of action. We're not going to solve this in a year or even probably a decade.

What do you think?


American One said...

Just wanted to let you know that you can find American-made sandals AND dumbbells at BuyAmerican.com (www.buyamericanmart.com) where you can also find 4,000 other products from over 250 American manufacturers -- and their selection grows every day!

All American One

Jack said...

That's probably the best post you've written Hoke.