China pushes its economic leverage

Chinese woman working on laptop

The rise of China and its impact on economies all over the world isn’t a new story, but this overview in the New York Times is worth reading. The tone is one of looking at the downside of China’s economic empire and the unwillingness of desperate partners like European nations to assert themselves. But there is an upside, as China can provide much needed capital to struggling countries, and this also gives China a huge stake in stability around the world. There are certainly concerns on issues like the environment and human rights, but one needs to look at the big picture as well. Fortunately, President Obama’s foreign policy is aimed at engaging but also containing China, and he has been willing to use our own leverage in this relationship.

More Apple audits in China

Apple is ramping up audits of factories in China.

Apple has told a prominent Chinese environmental activist that it will soon launch independent environmental audits of at least two suppliers’ factories in China, the activist said.

The audits come as Apple faces mounting criticism about toxic pollution and factory injuries at overseas suppliers’ factories. The environmental reviews would be separate from an independent probe of working conditions at the China factories of Apple suppliers, including Foxconn Technology, that began last week.

Ma Jun, founder of The Institute of Environmental and Public Affairs, told USA TODAY Monday in a phone interview that Apple agreed to the independent audits in late January in response to two reports that IPE and other environmental groups released last year documenting hazardous waste leaks and the use of toxic chemicals at suspected Apple suppliers.

Apple’s image has taken a beating with the problems at Foxconn, so let’s see if this is a new trend.

Bachelor Nation

China is facing a potential crisis of .

On a smoggy morning in Lanzhou, a gritty industrial city in China’s Gansu province, crowds of young men gather outside a half-built construction site. Dressed in torn jeans and dirty shirts and carrying thermoses of tea, they push toward the exterior fence, jostling for the attention of a site manager who hands out short-term jobs. Most of the men are unmarried and have no families. Finding no work, they drift away from the site and, by midday, congregate at a riverside park, where they trade tea for large bottles of beer, which they gulp down. Many of them soon stumble in circles.

Lanzhou exemplifies a more insidious, possibly more dangerous threat to China’s development than financial imbalances, environmental disasters or unemployment: The People’s Republic has too many men. Today, roughly 120 boys are born in China for every 100 girls, perhaps the worst gender imbalance in modern human history. Within 15 years, the country may have 30 million men who cannot find wives. That could mean serious trouble.

For centuries, patrilineal Chinese households have preferred male children because men are viewed as better able to support rural families, and boys inherited the land. Some Chinese gender experts, such as Liu Bohong of the All-China Women’s Federation, also argue that there is deep-seated male chauvinism in Chinese culture that leads to a preference for boys.

Infanticide often resulted, which sometimes created gender imbalances. But after taking power in 1949, the Communist Party largely stamped out infanticide, and by the early 1980s, China had a relatively normal ratio of male and female babies.

Unions organize Wal-Mart stores in China

is very interesting.

Wal-Mart workers in China have set up unions at all 62 outlets that the world’s biggest retailer operates here in what a senior Chinese trade union official described Thursday as a breakthrough for organized labor.

After overcoming stiff resistance from Wal-Mart, which has long fought to bar unions from its stores and distribution centers, the official All China Federation of Trade Unions now plans to focus on other companies in China it accuses of being traditionally hostile to unions, including Foxconn Electronics, Eastman Kodak and Dell.

Guo Wencai, a senior ACFTU organizer, told a press conference in Beijing that the success in unionizing Wal-Mart stores would be a springboard to similar campaigns aimed at these companies and others in China.

“We are going to exert very high pressure on all these types of companies until unions are established there,” Guo said.

“It is an irreversible trend.”

Yet the article also points out that the union movement has been encouraged by Chinese authorities as a way to mitigate the rise of militant labor movements and labor unrest. Under Chinese law, workers are barred from organizing independent unions:

Labor activists at times have accused the ACFTU of siding with management rather than acting as a champion of workers’ rights.

At best, they say the official union attempts to mediate in disputes.

Labor market analysts and human rights groups say that the Chinese authorities want to establish union branches in foreign companies in an effort to tighten control over the work force in the rapidly expanding private sector.

Labor unrest is now common in China, particularly among the 150 million-strong army of migrant workers, and some experts suggest that an improved network of unions could assist the authorities in defusing protests that could potentially pose a threat to Communist Party rule.

“They are afraid that public protests or strikes might get out of hand,” said Robin Munro, the Hong Kong-based research director of the China Labor Bulletin, a workers rights group.

“Hence the big drive to impose unions and provide greater union coverage. I think this is seen as a way of crisis management.”

Other political analysts have suggested that the Chinese authorities also want to expand the reach of the official union. That is because the decline of the state-owned sector has stripped away much of the Communist Party’s traditional power base in the Chinese economy, they say.

It will be interesting to see if the government can control the desires of workers to influence their own working conditions.

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