Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rise of the $1 censors?

There's been a lot of talk on some China blogs lately about China's so-called public opinion crisis, where public opinion spirals out of the government's control. To Western readers, this is a natural part of civil society - people express their views openly. But not so in China, where Rebecca MacKinnon has dubbed the government's strategy to control public debate "cybertarianism". The Chinese government pays bloggers to weigh in on online debates in Chinese - these so-called "50-cent censors" advance the government's view of situations without declaring who is paying them to do so. I haven't yet heard of 50-cent censors operating in the comment sections of English-language websites, but I wonder if they already exist. I have met some incredible English speakers in my travels in rural China, people who asked me about George W. Bush's frequent use of certain words like "robust" to describe the economy because they spent so much time on The initial responses to the always excellent Arthur Kroeber's piece on about the Rio Tinto case made me wonder whether there weren't $1 censors (surely they get paid more for posting in English) at work. Arthur's piece actually comes out fairly positive for China, saying it's not as bad as Russia; the piece doesn't directly address the question of what crimes were at stake, as commentators immediately pointed out. I'm assuming (as perhaps Arthur does, though I haven't asked him directly) that bribery is widespread in China, among both foreigners and locals, and that the larger issue at stake is the consistent application of the rule of law. As the public debate (see Niall Ferguson's piece in Newsweek, as one example) continues to heat up about China's rise and the resulting shifts in the world order, it will be interesting to see how the online chatter develops.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The China Daily on The China Price

Much to my surprise, the China Daily has reviewed my book in a favorable light. The review, published in today's China Daily, argues that "Harney's book certainly has plenty of grim material providing grist for the China-critic mills. But Harney has too much integrity and objectivity as a reporter to altogether ignore the positive side of China's export economy." William Daniel Garst, the reviewer, liked the story of the girls of room 817 (pictured on my Twitter page) and agrees with my argument that the China price is unsustainable. He does take a more sanguine view than I do in the book, where I argue that while China is changing and worker expectations are rising, not much will change until Western consumers do. If anything, the financial crisis has deepened Western consumers' appetite for cheap goods. But recent books like Ellen Ruppel Shell's Cheap, which generated good press coverage, suggest that at least coastal American pundits are willing to discuss the question that lies at the heart of The China Price: are we really okay with prices this low, even if they mean unsafe working conditions, unsafe products and the decampment of our entire manufacturing sector to cheaper locales abroad?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Whither rule by law for China?

The detention of respected Chinese lawyer and member of the Beijing People's Congress Xu Zhiyong has left me deeply concerned about the direction China is moving. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet and spend some time with him. Xu (pictured here in this month's Chinese Esquire magazine) is soft-spoken and modest; it wasn't until someone told me about his ground-breaking work after the Sun Zhigang case to help change the policy on custody and repatriation that I realized just how extraordinary and important a person he is. Here is a man who wants to work through China's own legal system for the benefit of its people. His representation of victims of the Sanlu milk scandal and his efforts to expose black jails testify to his convictions. Much has been written with great eloquence about the tragedy of Xu's detention and its potential significance for China. The detention of someone who was still playing well within the system (or so it would seem) suggests that it will become even more difficult for other lawyers to take on potentially sensitive cases, including, perhaps, labor cases. Is China setting itself up for further social instability? Thanks to excellent promotion of last year's labor laws, Chinese workers know now they can use the courts to redress grievances. Labor-related lawsuits rose 95% last year, the fastest increase of any category. Disputes are up a further 30% this year from last year's high base. If the door to the courts closes, where will workers, newly educated about their rights, turn?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Chemicals at any price?

In the wake of the Tonghua Iron and Steel Group labor dispute/murder case, another horrific story emerges from China's hinterland. According to the South China Morning Post, at least five people are dead and more than 500 sick as a result of cadmium poisoning from toxic waste freely released by Xianghe Chemical, a plant in Liuyang city, Hunan province. Employees of the plant, which has been closed, told the SCMP a familiar story of officials from the environmental protection bureau who came to "drink tea" but never saw the production line. On the one hand, you have to give China credit for at least meting out punishment: the director of the environmental protection bureau has been fired, and the deputy mayor arrested. But on the other hand, this is neither an isolated event in China nor new to this area - the previous director of environmental protection was arrested on suspicion of bribery. On the one hand, the China Daily's coverage and Xinhua's commentary have been more frank about problems with local governance; but on the other hand, this is not about "emergencies" or "incidents" - this is about a systematic, nation-wide pattern that, if unaddressed, will threaten the very stability it seeks to preserve. China's government and others rightly cite the fact that other nations polluted their way to industrialization. What they don't mention is that it was only bitter protests, followed by laws and policies considered radical at the time that finally put pressure on local officials to change.