Thursday, April 30, 2009

Go Patagonia!

A while back, a woman I met who works in corporate social responsibility at Patagonia told me that their customers were asking so many questions about working conditions in its supply chain that they had to educate their customer relations representatives about what they were doing to address these issues. If only more companies had that kind of problem! Patagonia has always been associated with environmental causes, but they are also quietly honest about the challenges they face on the labor side. Their multimedia presentations about the origin of products raise the bar for transparency. Sure, we could quibble about how honest they really are with themselves and with us, but it's a huge step in the right direction, one I wish more companies would take. Now, Patagonia has put together an excellent video in which their executives and outside observers discuss some of the challenges and complexity in ethical sourcing. It includes interviews with Michael Posner of Human Rights First, Auret van Heerden of the Fair Labor Association, Richard Applebaum of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and moi. Click on "Digging Deeper" here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

China-Japan relations

Last night in Hong Kong, I went to a dinner sponsored by the Asia Society where Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to Japan, spoke about China-Japan relations - a topic that interests me personally and professionally. Seats were assigned beforehand; I was seated between a US diplomat and an older Japanese businessman, a man whose informality betrayed his long experience overseas (or his lack of interest in me). Ambassador Cui was seated next to Sato Shigekazu, Japan's consul general in Hong Kong. Around the table were several other consul generals from the US, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. Despite the close economic ties, and Consul General Sato's insistence that the foreign ministries of both countries were on good terms, what was remarkable to me was how often Ambassador Cui raised the issue of history, specifically "the war started by Japan." In the Q&A, one Canadian guest, who told me later his wife is Japanese, insisted that there was no need to teach the minutae of war in Japanese schools and that the free press in Japan would allow people to educate themselves about history when they were adults. That didn't sit well with Ambassador Cui, and it doesn't sit well with me either. After the ambassador's prepared remarks, I asked the American diplomat to my right what he thought, and he said, basically, nothing new, that's what I would have expected him to say. But when I asked the Japanese businessman to my right, he had heard it in a completely different way: he said the speech had been "tough". He wished the ambassador had started his speech with the fact that Japanese rescue teams were the first foreign groups to reach victims of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. And while he admitted Japan had made plenty of mistakes in the past and its discussion of the war, he wished that the speech hadn't focused so much on politics. Better to discuss ways to expand economic cooperation, he said.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On migrants returning home

I've been arguing for a while now that in this economic downturn, China's migrants will not be a source for instability - despite warnings from authorities in Beijing and fear-mongering from China-watcher friends of mine. Pieces like this one in last week's Financial Times echo my views. But I have also argued that many migrants will not be excited about returning home during this crisis because the Chinese countryside is a step back developmentally to people accustomed to life in the big cities. The second generation of Chinese migrants - the generation born in the 80s - is not in it so much for the money as for the experience. This is why a blog written by one of these young migrants and translated into English by China Labor Bulletin is so fascinating. It's important to remember that the writer, Xiao Sanlang, is the only person from his village to go to graduate school - so he's not typical. But his comments are sympathetic and fascinating. They raise an interesting question about the transformation of the China price from a coastal China price to an inland China price: Will workers who have been working in Shenzhen and Shanghai really want to live in the same basic conditions they fled to work at an export factory near their home, particularly if the conditions are no better and wages are lower than on the coasts?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Yunnan and more

Just back from three weeks away, most recently in Lijiang, in China's southern Yunnan province. I could write an entire post on the need for rudimentary nighttime noise pollution rules in Lijiang's beautiful (if unabashedly commercial) old town, in order to help promote that often undervalued leisure activity: sleeping. But I won't. I will, however, note that it was nice to visit a part of the Chinese countryside that hadn't been completely drained of working-age humanity in pursuit of exports - not, of course, because of the global downturn, but because Lijiang (photo courtesy of GGBerry Travel Blog) has a booming tourism-based economy. And to refer to the second-most hackneyed source of insight (the first being taxi drivers), a blind masseur who helped put Colin back together again (and who spent 10 years working in Shenzhen) mentioned that prices for basics - food, clothing - are now about the same in Lijiang and Shenzhen. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given how many Chinese tourists there were in Lijiang, but I still thought it had to be cheaper than Shenzhen, one of China's most expensive places to live. Anyway, before I post anything substantive, I wanted to link to a couple sites that relate to interviews and talks I gave over the past few weeks. The first is a podcast with two impressive American interns at Caijing, China's leading business magazine. The second is a blog post by the Daily Telegraph's Beijing correspondent, Peter Foster, about a talk I gave on how China's second-generation factory workers are not a source of organized social unrest. Peter does a great job of summarizing my points, arguably better than I could have.