Jan 31, 2013 - Issue 502

China: More Than a Country
Of Millions of Low Wage Workers

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Most Americans have been fed a (sparse) diet of news about the most populous nation on the planet that consists largely of stories about what they produce for the American market in the way of electronic gadgetry, toys and clothing.

And, they produce these goods, so we are led to understand, at the cheapest rates of pay possible, with the exception of a few other Asian countries, like Vietnam, but that’s not the whole story. 

For many in China, their industrial development is a sign of their country’s advance into the 21st Century and they believe that it is a signal that they are taking the lead from the “developed” or “industrialized” nations. On its way to becoming the manufacturing and economic powerhouse of the world, Chinese leaders are causing some of the world’s most serious environmental damage. A large part of the reason is that they are willing to burn coal and any fossil fuel to maintain their rapid growth rate. Not unlike other countries, they seem to believe that public health is the price to be paid for economic preeminence.

A few years ago, the average wage in China was 57 cents per hour. Considering the numbers of millionaires that have been created in the past 20 years, and the middle class that has developed, it has taken untold millions of workers who are paid 20-30 cents an hour to bring that average wage down to 57 cents. How is the middle class growing, so that it is nearly equal to the entire population of the U.S.? The answer is simply that they have a huge amount of our money and our wealth.

That middle class is growing rapidly and now, it is said to be about 300 million, in a nation of 1.3 billion. Those in the Chinese middle class shop in the same kinds of malls that Americans shop in and they want to live in the same style, albeit on a less ostentatious scale for now. But, that’s a lot of consumption. What of those at the bottom of the wage and income scale? They are the ones who do the wage slave work which supplies America’s (and other nations’) giant corporations, especially the retailers.

Even though China has not reached the automobile production, per capita, that the U.S. has, it is moving fast toward a public transit system that will likely tend to curb the use of automobiles for virtually every activity. With an eye toward reducing fossil fuel consumption for transit, China has been developing a rail system, which is far ahead of what the U.S. has done. Making the rounds on the Internet now is a series of pictures of Beijing’s passenger rail station and the trains it serves. The station itself resembles a giant flying saucer that might take up several city blocks and myriad sets of tracks bringing in trains that look as if they would be more at home in space, than on a set of tracks on the ground.

The trains move people from Beijing to Shanghai at 350 kilometers per hour, or 217.5 miles per hour. The train can cover the 802-mile trip in just under 3 hours and 45 minutes. That would be the equivalent of traveling from New York City to Savannah, Ga., in a few minutes more than the Beijing-Shanghai trip. On board the trains, there are amenities of which any top-flight U.S. airline would be envious.

Such a rail system is in sharp contrast with what we Americans understand as China’s best-known product: cheap labor and cheap consumer goods. The U.S. has a minimum wage, so the average pay of American workers would not drop to the starvation wage of 57 cents an hour, or less. The U.S. has millions of workers who are working at much less than their pay at their former jobs and, of course, there are those who have stopped looking for work. China does not seem to be uncomfortable with so many abjectly poor workers, because it attracts investment from transnational corporations from the rich countries, and that brings in capital to its coffers. It’s why they hold so much of our wealth.

The rail system in question did not spring whole from the mind of one of the leaders of the Chinese economy. It was planned long in advance, probably decades. For a Communist Party-controlled, central-command system, they certainly do capitalism well. 

By contrast, from Feb. 11-13, there will be a high-level transportation summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss, among other things, high-speed rail. The list of speakers does not at this time include anyone from China, who might explain how they did it. But, the contrast is crystal clear: The U.S. is now discussing how it is going to plan for what they at the conference call “transit oriented development.” We can assume that this means that any future development would place transportation as the first consideration. If things go as they usually do in the U.S., we might have a usable public transportation system by the time China decides that its current rail system is old and needs to be replaced.

This happened with what was to have become a premier new “green” industry in the U.S., the use of solar power, which calls for development of cutting edge solar panels and collectors, a method of storage, and inclusion of that power into the grid. A great uproar was provoked among the political right wing, when Solyndra, the solar industry firm went belly up, after the Obama Administration gave it $500 million. As was pointed out by analysts, assisting Solyndra was too little, too late. The Chinese already had developed cheaper solar panels and their solar industry was far ahead of America’s. Solyndra just could not compete with imported Chinese solar panels. China’s success and scale of production of the panels outstripped the market and their losses in that industry have been increasing.

The cry that went up from Republicans and the folks on the right about Solyndra was a direct result of their unwillingness to invest much in alternative energy and just kept plowing money into the fossil fuel industry, which heavily funds political campaigns for national office. Meanwhile, they are willing to give the fossil fuel industry many billions of dollars per year, without giving it a thought. 

Not only is something wrong with this picture, it makes U.S. lag behind any country that is willing to spend the money to find other ways to fuel its economy. Despite their wholehearted use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, the Chinese have an eye on the future for a green economy. If, in the process of selling alternative energy systems to the rest of the world, China provides its people with a cleaner environment, that’s an added benefit to them. Of primary concern for them, though, is the race to become the world’s biggest producer of consumer goods and, possibly, industrial goods as well.

Politicians express concern about the imbalance in trade, but most do not know what to do. Last July, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman went to China, leading a trade mission and hoping to convince the Chinese to buy more of his state’s export goods, and he hoped to get the Chinese to invest more in his state. The Republican governor traveled to China hoping to come back with some assurances that his state will develop strong economic relations with China. This, even though Nebraska has suffered along with other states in the loss of a national total of 2.7 million jobs to China in the past 10 years.

Heineman, as do most Republicans, will take any kind of energy that he can get and, just recently, he announced his approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will bring a toxic brew all the way from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast, where it would be refined. Environmentalists and others concerned about the water sources and the people all along the 1,700-mile line say that the toxic chemicals that the pipeline would carry will leak and that it’s not a question of whether, but when. 

Alternative energy is not being debated by American politicians to any great extent. In fact, the few that have made it a major issue in their campaigns have been marginalized to the extent possible, through derision, lobbying, public relations, and propaganda by the powerful oil and gas industry. The move toward public or mass transit is the way to get the largest number of cars off the roads. But, right wing politicians deny that there is a problem (just drill more wells, they say) and they have intimidated the rest of their colleagues into backing off on alternative energy.

The U.S. is losing ground and the nation does not have people of vision in charge. Rather, we have people who vehemently deny climate change and are strongly opposed to consideration of alternative energy sources. Where do we go from here?

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.