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Date: Thu, 25 Nov 1999 23:48:53 -0600 (CST)
From: Mya Shone <owc@igc.apc.org>
Subject: [OWC] China, the WTO and Building the OWC
Article: 82915
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.23896.19991126211559@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Interview with Cai Chongguo, speaking out against WTO

OWC, [25 November 1999]

Following is an interview with Caï Chongguo, the editor of the French edition of China Labour Bulletin, the voice of the independent trade union movement in China. Caï was an organizer of independent trade unions that arose during the mass uprising of May-June 1989 at Tiananmen Square. He was forced into exile after the uprising was violently repressed by the regime.

China Labour Bulletin is published in Hong Kong by Chinese railworker Han Dongfang, who was the founder of the Autonomous Workers' Federation of Beijing. In his capacity as international relations director of China Labour Bulletin, Caï represented Han Dongfang at the September 1999 national convention of the AFL-CIO. (Han was stripped of his Chinese citizenship and cannot leave the country, as he would not be allowed to re-enter.)

The interview below was conducted by French journalist Olivier Doriane and was published in the November 22, 1999, issue of Informations Ouvrières (Labor News), the publication of the Workers Party of France.

I.O.: On November 15, 1999, high-ranking U.S. and Chinese officials signed an agreement in Beijing that is meant to pave the way for China's entry into the World Trade Organization. What can you tell us about this agreement?

Cai Chongguo: I was shocked by the fact that nowhere in this agreement is there any reference to workers' rights. Everyone in the world knows that the Chinese government does not respect labor rights. These international negotiations could have been seized to put pressure on the Chinese government. The democratic countries could have insisted that China ratify ILO Conventions 87 and 98, which uphold the right to independent trade unions and collective bargaining.

But the U.S. government did not do that. For its part, the Chinese government, which has no legitimacy, accelerated its quest to join the WTO for its own political needs. It hopes that membership in the WTO will enhance its recognition and legitimacy the world over.

I am fully in agreement with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney when he stated recently that an agreement was reached with a government that does not respect workers' rights. All this just shows that the WTO is not an organization that respects the principles of democracy. The WTO is not in the least concerned about such fundamental questions as labor rights, human rights, and environmental protections.

The WTO's decisions affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe, and yet these decisions are made by a handful of people behind closed doors. The WTO is not interested in the opinions and views of the true representatives of the peoples of the world.

I.O.: Top government officials in Beijing have hailed this new agreement. China Daily, in fact, devoted numerous pages to explain how it will benefit the Chinese people. Bill Clinton also declared that it was a good agreement. What is the significance of this agreement from the standpoint of those who are fighting to build independent trade unions in China?

Cai Chongguo: I am deeply concerned about the impact of this accord on the Chinese workers and peasants. I am concerned about the situation that faces China's agriculture and important sectors of its industry. In relation to agriculture, U.S. products are 30 percent cheaper than Chinese products for such crops as corn and wheat, for example.

The WTO agreement means that China's agricultural market will be opened wide to U.S. corporations. Under these conditions, the very lives of millions of Chinese peasants are at risk. I fear this will only provoke a new mass exodus of peasants from their lands. Already, more than 100 million peasants have had to abandon their farmlands, only to be thrust into even even more deplorable situations either in the Special Economic Zones or in the outskirts of the large cities, where they have no social safety net of any kind, no jobs, no housing.

The U.S.-China agreement has a specific section on the auto industry. It is well known that over the last number of years, the French government - but not only they - have invested in China. Over the past 20 years, the country has had a difficult time trying to digest, so to speak, all the new technologies. I fear that this process will be broken with the mass importation -- now made possible by this new accord -- of U.S. and Western automobiles. The auto industry in China, which is just in the process of modernization, is threatened with destruction.

Indeed, we are very concerned. We fear that unemployment will soar anew. With this new agreement, moreover, the state-run enterprises will be more quickly abandoned. Plant closures will increase and unemployment will rise.

I.O.: What conclusions do you draw from this?

Cai Chongguo: I think this new accord between the Chinese and U.S. governments makes the struggle to build independent trade unions in China an even more urgent and immediate task. Even the Chinese government has had to acknowledge that unemployment will rise significantly. Of course, they say this is a necessary price that must be paid to be a full participant in the global economy. They call it an inevitable sacrifice.

Once again, the Chinese authorities are portraying the Chinese workers as an obstacle to the opening of China's market. The Chinese authorities are ready to sacrifice the rights and very interests of the Chinese workers for the sake of this agreement. We cannot accept this.

More than ever, it is necessary for the Chinese workers to have independent organizations with which to defend themselves. We have experienced 20 years of so-called reforms, all aimed at opening up progressively China's economy. This experience has demonstrated that such reforms, carried out as they are without democracy and without independent trade unions, only result in the victimization of the large majority of the workers.

The standard of living has dropped. Working conditions have deteriorated. And only a small minority of people have benefited. Before we didn't know any of this would happen. We were under the illusion that with the opening of the Chinese economy and these reforms, the Chinese economy would progress. We thought that with this opening the foreign corporations would introduce scientific methods of production and rational systems of administration. We hoped these market reforms would modernize China.

But we have lived through 20 years of economic reforms. For the great majority of the population, the conditions of life and work are far worse now than before. The standard of living of the workers and peasants has not increased. The state enterprises were not modernized. On the contrary, they are witnessing today an unprecedented crisis. Unemployment mounts by the day. It is no longer possible today to harbor any such illusions in these market reforms and agreements.

With these reforms, we saw the introduction of the Special Economic Zones. These were presented as China's window to the world. They were meant to open our country wide to modern society. But the reality of these Special Economic Zones is what we have described month after month in our China Labour Bulletin: sweatshops, over-exploitation, untold misery.

There are some, in fact there are many, new modern industries, new office buildings, and new luxury hotels. But this is far outweighed by the massive uprooting of millions upon millions of peasants from their farms -- peasants who are forced to migrate to the Special Economic Zones and to the cities, where they are plunged into conditions of undescribable squalor.Behind the facade of modernization are the millions upon millions of workers who toil with no safety protections, no rights, and meager pay.

Many of you know about some of the fires in the sweatshops of the Special Economic Zones. Hundreds of women workers were killed, unable to escape for lack of safety codes and regulations. These are the abominable conditions of exploitation that are being foisted upon us by the multinational corporations through their free trade agreements.

So to conclude, I would say the following: It is not the opening of China's market under any conditions that will bring something beneficial to China. What matters, what can offer a future of hope and dignity, is our struggle - that is, the struggle of the workers and peasants of China, supported by the labor movement worldwide. And for that we need independent trade unions.