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China Is Not to Blame for the Decline of the US Working Class

Friday, February 10, 2017 By Eli Friedman, Truthout | Op-Ed
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Workers take a break at Olympus’s factory in Shenzhen, China, on March 2, 2016. (Photo: Lam Yik Fei / The New York Times)Workers take a break at Olympus's factory in Shenzhen, China, on March 2, 2016. (Photo: Lam Yik Fei / The New York Times)

What ails the American working class? Explanations for the decline of decent jobs abound -- excessive red tape, robots, or a shadowy network of globalists. But for Donald Trump's National Trade Council head Peter Navarro, the answer is unambiguous: China is to blame.

As has been widely reported, Navarro is the author of numerous books and articles that support Trump's assertion that China has "raped" the US economically. In this fantastical view of global capitalism, the disappearance of good jobs in the US is China's fault. While Navarro and Trump have made numerous claims about why China is the source of our ills, the central belief is that the government of the People's Republic of China has been breaking the rules of global trade, which has undercut the competitiveness of US industry. Righting the ship, according to this narrative, requires "getting tough on China" via high tariffs and a more assertive military presence in Asia.

The first problem with this line of thought is that it is predicated on the straightforwardly wrong belief that China's currency is undervalued. If the Chinese government were to stop intervening in currency markets, as Trump has demanded, the value of the renminbi would likely fall rather than rise.

But there is a deeper political problem: This rhetoric aims to pit American workers against Chinese workers, all while letting employers off the hook. In fact, workers on both sides of the Pacific experience similar conditions, and are often exploited by the very same capitalists.

While China has, by many measures, enjoyed spectacular economic success over the past generation, workers there -- much like in the US -- are still barely getting by. Inequality in China has skyrocketed, and in 30 years, the country has gone from being one of the most equal in the world to one of the most unequal. The Chinese government has recently called for revising labor laws to make them more employer-friendly, and has advocated freezes in a minimum wage that was never enough to begin with. Access to high-quality health care, housing and schooling is woefully inadequate, and wage hikes have not kept up with increases in the cost of living. Chinese workers worry that their children will be shut out of an education system run by, and for, the elites.

All of these conditions might sound familiar to workers struggling to get by in the US. But most Americans would be surprised to learn that Chinese workers are now facing the waves of factory closures and relocations that have plagued the US for decades. In recent years, Chinese labor has become comparatively expensive, in part due to the fact that workers have justifiably been engaged in widespread collective action. Capitalists in labor-intensive industries like electronics, textiles, shoes and toys have increasingly sought even cheaper land and labor in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Particularly in the industrial heartland of Guangdong Province, there are increasing signs of premature deindustrialization.

Before the Chinese working class could stand on its own two feet and secure a decent livelihood, transnational corporations cut out the ground from underneath. One result of this is that the number of manufacturing jobs in China has likely already peaked. This makes it clear that Chinese workers have not stolen "our jobs" -- capitalists have continually stolen jobs from whoever has the audacity to demand collective voice at work and a livable wage. And it is worth noting that all major political parties -- the US Republicans and Democrats and the Communist Party of China alike -- have been nearly unanimous in supporting the rights of employers to do precisely that. 

Much could be said about Donald Trump, an avowed sexual assaulter, claiming that the US has been "raped" by China. But among other problems, this framing sidesteps reality: It is transnational capital that has exploited and discarded workers indiscriminately, regardless of national origin. Immensely profitable US companies, such as Walmart and Apple, are inconceivable in their current form without access to cheap, highly productive and politically repressed Chinese labor. And now Chinese capitalists are setting up shop in the US, hoping to enjoy the same low-wage, union-free environment they are used to in their home country.

Navarro and Trump's scapegoating of China for the decline of the American working class emphasizes fictional national antagonism while ignoring very real class disparities. Elements within the Chinese state have long warned that the US is fundamentally anti-Chinese, and the election of Trump has only strengthened the hand of this faction.

In fact, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping share much in common: Both advocate their own race reclaiming its supposed rightful position in the world, and that workers must unquestioningly submit to the authority of their bosses in order to realize that goal. Xi's key platform has been realizing the "great revival of the Chinese race," a phrase that bears more than passing resemblance to Trumpian rhetoric. Particularly given the increasingly tense geopolitical situation in East Asia, the ascendance of assertively jingoistic politics should be of grave concern. Neither of these strongmen can see beyond narrow national interest -- it is up to us to work to transcend such ethno-supremacist myopia.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Eli Friedman

Eli Friedman is assistant professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University and the author of Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China.


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China Is Not to Blame for the Decline of the US Working Class

Friday, February 10, 2017 By Eli Friedman, Truthout | Op-Ed
  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print

Workers take a break at Olympus’s factory in Shenzhen, China, on March 2, 2016. (Photo: Lam Yik Fei / The New York Times)Workers take a break at Olympus's factory in Shenzhen, China, on March 2, 2016. (Photo: Lam Yik Fei / The New York Times)

What ails the American working class? Explanations for the decline of decent jobs abound -- excessive red tape, robots, or a shadowy network of globalists. But for Donald Trump's National Trade Council head Peter Navarro, the answer is unambiguous: China is to blame.

As has been widely reported, Navarro is the author of numerous books and articles that support Trump's assertion that China has "raped" the US economically. In this fantastical view of global capitalism, the disappearance of good jobs in the US is China's fault. While Navarro and Trump have made numerous claims about why China is the source of our ills, the central belief is that the government of the People's Republic of China has been breaking the rules of global trade, which has undercut the competitiveness of US industry. Righting the ship, according to this narrative, requires "getting tough on China" via high tariffs and a more assertive military presence in Asia.

The first problem with this line of thought is that it is predicated on the straightforwardly wrong belief that China's currency is undervalued. If the Chinese government were to stop intervening in currency markets, as Trump has demanded, the value of the renminbi would likely fall rather than rise.

But there is a deeper political problem: This rhetoric aims to pit American workers against Chinese workers, all while letting employers off the hook. In fact, workers on both sides of the Pacific experience similar conditions, and are often exploited by the very same capitalists.

While China has, by many measures, enjoyed spectacular economic success over the past generation, workers there -- much like in the US -- are still barely getting by. Inequality in China has skyrocketed, and in 30 years, the country has gone from being one of the most equal in the world to one of the most unequal. The Chinese government has recently called for revising labor laws to make them more employer-friendly, and has advocated freezes in a minimum wage that was never enough to begin with. Access to high-quality health care, housing and schooling is woefully inadequate, and wage hikes have not kept up with increases in the cost of living. Chinese workers worry that their children will be shut out of an education system run by, and for, the elites.

All of these conditions might sound familiar to workers struggling to get by in the US. But most Americans would be surprised to learn that Chinese workers are now facing the waves of factory closures and relocations that have plagued the US for decades. In recent years, Chinese labor has become comparatively expensive, in part due to the fact that workers have justifiably been engaged in widespread collective action. Capitalists in labor-intensive industries like electronics, textiles, shoes and toys have increasingly sought even cheaper land and labor in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Particularly in the industrial heartland of Guangdong Province, there are increasing signs of premature deindustrialization.

Before the Chinese working class could stand on its own two feet and secure a decent livelihood, transnational corporations cut out the ground from underneath. One result of this is that the number of manufacturing jobs in China has likely already peaked. This makes it clear that Chinese workers have not stolen "our jobs" -- capitalists have continually stolen jobs from whoever has the audacity to demand collective voice at work and a livable wage. And it is worth noting that all major political parties -- the US Republicans and Democrats and the Communist Party of China alike -- have been nearly unanimous in supporting the rights of employers to do precisely that. 

Much could be said about Donald Trump, an avowed sexual assaulter, claiming that the US has been "raped" by China. But among other problems, this framing sidesteps reality: It is transnational capital that has exploited and discarded workers indiscriminately, regardless of national origin. Immensely profitable US companies, such as Walmart and Apple, are inconceivable in their current form without access to cheap, highly productive and politically repressed Chinese labor. And now Chinese capitalists are setting up shop in the US, hoping to enjoy the same low-wage, union-free environment they are used to in their home country.

Navarro and Trump's scapegoating of China for the decline of the American working class emphasizes fictional national antagonism while ignoring very real class disparities. Elements within the Chinese state have long warned that the US is fundamentally anti-Chinese, and the election of Trump has only strengthened the hand of this faction.

In fact, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping share much in common: Both advocate their own race reclaiming its supposed rightful position in the world, and that workers must unquestioningly submit to the authority of their bosses in order to realize that goal. Xi's key platform has been realizing the "great revival of the Chinese race," a phrase that bears more than passing resemblance to Trumpian rhetoric. Particularly given the increasingly tense geopolitical situation in East Asia, the ascendance of assertively jingoistic politics should be of grave concern. Neither of these strongmen can see beyond narrow national interest -- it is up to us to work to transcend such ethno-supremacist myopia.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Eli Friedman

Eli Friedman is assistant professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University and the author of Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China.


Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus