The price of non-progress in China

Tainted food, premature deaths from air pollution, slave labor -- a Chinese historian places blame where it is due

By Andrew Leonard

Published July 2, 2007 11:20PM (EDT)

Foul news from China is flowing at a disheartening rate. The Financial Times is reporting that Chinese officials pressured the World Bank into removing "nearly a third of a World Bank report on pollution in China because of concerns that findings on premature deaths could provoke 'social unrest.'"

The deleted section indicated that as many as 750,000 premature deaths a year in China can be attributed to air pollution.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports on a plague of heavy metal contamination of farming land in China. Hazardous levels of cadmium, lead and copper have been discovered in the food supply. "The Ministry of Land and Resources said in April that heavy metals had contaminated about 13 million tons of grain, and that 30.4 million acres, or more than 10 percent of the country's arable land, is contaminated by pollution."

The new revelations come on top of the widely reported instances of problems with Chinese seafood, tires, pet food, and toothpaste. And then there's the most horrifying story of all in recent weeks: the exposure of slave labor in brick kiln factories in Shanxi province.

Anyone striving to make sense of all this should read an interview tackling the deeper meaning of the brick kiln nightmare conducted by China's Southern Metropolis Weekly with the historian Wu Si. Wu Si's analysis is a tour de force, from his comparison of present day exploitation of workers in China to virtually identical horrors inflicted on the poor during the Qing dynasty two hundred years ago, to his explication how China's current structure of governance ensures that such abuses will continue. The entire interview, as Jottings from the Granite Studio observes, is a brilliant "must-read." But one passage jumps out.

Southern Metropolis Weekly... But opening this up a bit, one could say that this is one extreme of a continuous spectrum of the relationship between labor and capital in China. In the media, we have often seen reports of forced labor, body searches, abominable working environments, excessive hours, short wages, and so forth. Some have called these phenomena "problems in the course of development," and "the inevitable cost of transition" as China moves toward modernization. What is your evaluation of the "price of progress" view?

Wu: How could it be the "price of progress"? This is precisely an expression of "non-progress". A recurrence of the events of two centuries ago -- is this "progress"?

The essence of "progress" is an expansion of the rights of every citizen, development is above all a development of rights. China's agricultural development was first of all the result of the development of peasants' rights -- land assigned for each household. Farmers controlling the fruits of their own labor, farmers permitted to travel elsewhere to work, farmers permitted to transport goods long distances -- in the past, these rights were "turned in." It was the same for industry -- once it belonged to the state, but now individuals can run factories, capitalists have gained the rights they ought to have, so industry can develop. Workers are upset now because in the relationship between labor and capital their rights are often encroached upon. What kind of progress is this?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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