The 'Race to the Bottom' Returns: China's Challenge to the International Labor Movement
China is now, and increasingly, an integral player in the global economy and in international relations. Economic and political restructuring in China today is affecting the lives of millions, yet only a small number of top bureaucrats and wealthy regime-backed entrepreneurs are making the basic decisions about the outcome of this process. This bureaucratic and entrepreneurial class resists fiercely any serious attempt to build independent and democratic institutions such as trade unions. This article will consider four areas of concern. First, the structural changes underway in the Chinese economy are creating both domestic and international imbalances that are exacerbating inequalities among Chinese workers and creating new inequities in the global labor market. Second, the Chinese regime's approach to labor rights remains rigidly authoritarian and so is triggering ever more dramatic confrontations between workers and the Chinese state, despite the regime's nominal commitment to "socialism." Third, these developments are being reinforced by a pathological evolution in the principles that govern key international institutions such as the WTO and the ILO. A conflict has emerged within the international legal arena between the founding principles of these institutions and their current approach to labor and human rights issues. Fourth, within the international labor movement itself a small current is emerging which views an accommodation with the Chinese regime a feasible alternative to the long-standing goal of the international labor movement of independent and free trade unionism in China. This approach threatens the credibility of the labor movement's opposition to the most damaging aspects of the globalization process, a major commitment of the international labor movement since the "battle of Seattle" that took place at the failed ministerial conference of the WTO in November 1999. An alternative view must be articulated if Chinese and western workers are to join together to reverse the "race to the bottom."
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