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Capitalism leaves many struggling


While waiting to board the El Al flight from Beijing to Israel, I noticed that most of the Chinese passengers sitting nearby had pink stickers fixed on their chests. Looking closer, I discerned that a number was scribbled on each sticker. I also observed that none of these Chinese men -- around 100 -- had carry-on luggage. On the plane they were seated together, in the back rows.

These Chinese migrant workers were on their way to the “promised land,” leaving their homes, wives, children and friends -- perhaps for a couple of years. Within days of their arrival they will probably begin working for pitiful wages that no Jew would accept at Israeli construction sites or farms. A portion of their meager salaries will no doubt be sent home every month, but only after the contractor who brought them to Israel has deducted his share. This transnational trade in human labor is an integral part of globalization.

About three weeks earlier I had begun my travel along the silk route from East China all the way to the Pakistani border. During the trip, I was not only impressed by Chinese culture, scenery and history, but also by how this vast country mirrors the process we call globalization.

My realization that some of advanced capitalism’s most pronounced features are thriving in China first occurred while passing by an older woman standing beside a scale in the midst of a bustling city. For about two cents I weighed myself. Each day, for hours on end, she waits for customers. Behind the woman, about four yards away, stood an ATM machine. The smallest amount of money the machine allows one to withdraw is probably more than this woman earns per month.

In the city of Kashgar, I visited a government factory. On the first floor workers were making carpets, on the second musical instruments, and on a third embroidered hats. Through a translator, I talked with the workers. The most experienced carpet weavers earn $70 a month, the instrument makers bring home about $50, and the women who embroider the hats earn no more than $20. The cost of living is indeed much cheaper in Kashgar than it is in the industrialized world, but even there $20 a month is an unlivable wage. Less than five minutes from the factory there is a small mall full of Chinese shoppers buying commodities at prices comparable to those in the West.

In free market China, the gap between the rich minority and the poor majority is so striking that it cannot be hidden from the public’s eyes. The impoverished ghettos are adjacent to the most luxurious stores and hotels; the crumbling and crowded buildings are not on the other side of town as they are in the United States or Europe.

According to the logic propelling the global economy, only a small percent of China’s 1.2 billion people need to have buying power for the corporations to be satisfied. It is enough that 120 million Chinese will have money to shop, while the remaining billion continue to be exploited, in China itself, and on farms and in sweatshops around the world.

This trend is not entirely new. In the 1920s, Chinese scholar Li Dazhao said that Europe, America and Japan intended to transform the Chinese people into their proletariat. Today, the Chinese government and financial elite cooperate with these countries, and together they reap great profits at the expense of the working poor.

Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000