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Rethinking the China campaign

January 19, 2001

A critique of the American labor movement’s stance


Last year, one of the principal activities of the main US union federation, the AFL-CIO, was a high-profile campaign against the United States granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status to China. Kent Wong and Elaine Bernard argue that this campaign was not only a tactical mistake, but also fed on a tradition of hostility toward Chinese workers.







In May 2000, the American labor movement suffered a significant defeat in its attempt to block Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status for China when the US House of Representatives voted 237-197 to approve PNTR for China. This was the labor movement’s largest legislative campaign in years, mobilizing the resources of the American labor movement from coast to coast. But was this the best step to take on the heels of the powerful anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) coalition that emerged in Seattle last November?

Why did PNTR, a relatively narrow legislative issue, deserve such prominence on the labor movement’s agenda? The debate around China became a symbol for the American labor movement. It emerged as a test of labor’s ability to influence Congress, and established a litmus test for politicians. The American labor movement’s campaign against granting China PNTR as a prelude to its admission to the WTO became a symbol of labor’s opposition to the threat of globalization and unfair trade agreements.

However, this approach and this campaign were essentially counter-productive. While the campaign was launched with the intent of promoting internationalism and avoiding China-bashing, we fear that the ultimate impact of the campaign has been to fuel Cold War politics and encourage an unholy alliance with the right wing, and has resulted in racially offensive messages. As well, the campaign has weakened the strong anti-corporate and international solidarity focus coming out of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and dissipated some of the positive momentum from the Seattle action.







History is important, and though we might wish it to be otherwise, we need to examine the recent campaign against PNTR for China in the context of the long history of the American labor movement’s policies toward China.

Running as a fault line throughout its history, the US labor movement has been hostile to Asian workers. The early American Federation of Labor (AFL) had an explicit policy of barring Asian members from the ranks of the American labor movement. In 1903, for example, the Japanese Mexican Labor Association in California was denied charter membership with the AFL, solely because they had numbers of Japanese-American members. Under its first President Samuel Gompers, the AFL embraced an exclusionary policy towards China and Chinese workers. This policy of exclusion and hostility continued well into the 20th century. American unions were major proponents of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which for the first time in US history enacted racially exclusive immigration policies against people from a single country, China. Subsequently, these racist immigration laws were expanded to exclude other would-be immigrants from Asia.

While hostility to China declined somewhat during the Second World War, with nationalist Chinese as allies in the war against Japan, the post-war victory of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) marked the beginning of the Cold War. During the Cold War, US attitudes towards China led to a revival of racist portrayals of China and Chinese people as “inscrutable,” sinister, untrustworthy and ruthless killers who do not value life. The yellow hordes of coolies, low-wage workers and strike breakers of the 19th century, were transformed into the red hordes of the 20th century as Americans were taught to fear the hundreds of millions of “Red Chinese” who were considered a threat to US security. The FBI was convinced that there were “Red Chinese” spies, and launched special investigations targeting Chinese-American communities.

Throughout this period, the US labor movement was at the forefront in supporting US Cold War policies. And while labor today has made an important change in its attitude toward immigrants, siding with undocumented workers and their right to organize, many vestiges of Cold War, anti-Chinese mentalities still are alive and well within US society. China continues to be a major target of the conservative and religious right, which sustain this Cold War ideology in their crusade against China. Discrimination against Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans continues. A few years ago, due to allegations of illegal fundraising activities involving a handful of Asian-Americans, donors with Asian surnames were singled out by the Democratic National Committee and requested to produce proof of their ability to contribute to the DNC. The case of Dr. Wen Ho Lee of Los Alamos has generated national outrage from the Chinese-American community amid charges of racial profiling, and unfairly scapegoating Chinese-Americans because of their suspected disloyalty to the United States.

It is vital for labor to consider this historical context when deciding on tactics. This does not mean that labor cannot criticize actions by the Chinese government, but it does mean that extra care must be taken because of the legacy of racism and hostility against Chinese and other Asian workers.







The most recent campaign to deny China PNTR and admission to the WTO has been a step backward in the campaign against corporate-sponsored globalization and for fair trade, development and global solidarity. The AFL-CIO put forward the slogan, “No Blank Check for China.” Not only was this slogan misleading, as PNTR was hardly a blank check but merely giving China the same status that the United States gives other nations it trades with, but also it shifted the focus of the debate on globalization from corporations and the actions of the US government to China.

China is hardly driving globalization; whether or not China is granted PNTR does not change the fundamental problems of corporate control of trade policies. Whether or not China is admitted to the WTO does not change the fundamental problems of the WTO’s refusal to address issues of labor, human rights and environmental standards.

China is not a major player in establishing international trade policies, nor has it been a beneficiary of corporate global domination. Historically, like other developing nations, China has been exploited by other countries for its natural resources and cheap labor. The campaign against China shifts attention from the structural problems of the global economy created by unregulated corporate power, to targeting one country, China. Trade unionists and all people of conscience must actively oppose human rights abuses, labor rights abuses and environmental degradation in China. Workers in China should be supported in their struggle to build democratic trade unions and to fight for social and economic justice. But the American labor movement must have a clear, consistent policy on global trade and development and human rights that does not unfairly single out China.

Alas, China is not alone in committing violations of political, labor and human rights among countries that have permanent normal trade status with the United States, or among the 135 governments that are presently WTO members. The US government itself has a deplorable track record of supporting repressive regimes in Indonesia, Iran, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile and many other countries. In many instances, the United States has used armed intervention to support military dictatorships.

For the United States to challenge China’s entry into the WTO because of political and human rights abuse amounts to hypocrisy. China should not be singled out for some of the very same human rights abuses that occur in the United States, such as widespread use of prison labor. For union leaders to lead the campaign against China implies that China is the biggest threat to US workers, not corporate-driven globalization, and the corporate-dominated institutions driving the race to the bottom, such as the WTO, World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Worse still, the campaign inevitably built on the Cold War framework and racially hostile sentiment towards China. At the April 12, 2000, demonstration against China held in Washington, DC, this resulted in the embarrassing spectacle of Teamster President James Hoffa, Jr. and right-wing demagogue Pat Buchanan addressing union members from the same stage. At the AFL-CIO rally, union leaders denounced China as a “godless” society. Unionists wore T-shirts demonizing China and Chinese people, promoting an image of Chinese as ruthless killers and torturers.

The new leadership of the AFL-CIO has done much to break with the Cold War positioning of the labor movement, and to construct a new alliance with communities of faith, immigrants and social movements, on international as well as domestic issues. Unfortunately, the anti-China campaign has undermined some of these efforts.







Progressive proponents of the anti-China campaign argue that this was an important tactical battle in the fight against corporate-led globalization. Because major US corporations are at the forefront of advancing PNTR, labor should oppose it. They also argue that this campaign could undermine the corporate agenda, and force change within the WTO and in future trade negotiations.

Progressives further argue that granting China PNTR and allowing its entry into the WTO will adversely affect the lives of workers in both China and the United States. As they correctly point out, policies of corporate globalism have resulted in greater economic inequality, dislocation of workers and more opposition to worker rights and organized labor. Finally, they argue that China is a major human rights violator and that its entry into the WTO will make it difficult if not impossible to include labor and human rights in trade relations.

With regard to the first argument, the tactical campaign against PNTR has failed. Worse than just losing an important campaign, however, the loss has left some in labor tactically aligned with the conservative right. Further, it has continued the long tradition of demonizing China, without adequately educating American workers on the true nature of the global economy.

The campaign was also tactically flawed, because it undermined labor’s own political agenda in a crucial election year. It promoted greater divisions within labor and with labor’s efforts in working with the Democrats to recapture the House and Senate. Industrial unions have been the most vocal in denouncing the White House’s campaign for PNTR. These same unions have historically been strongest in the Midwestern states, which were a central battleground for the November presidential election. Finally, while PNTR was clearly an important issue for business, for labor even a victory in denying China PNTR status would be a Pyrrhic victory at best. If labor had won, it would simply mean that the debate over China would have continued annually on the renewal of its Most Favored Nation (MFN) status.

With regard to the negative impact of China’s PNTR status, the verdict is still out. Increased trade with China may cause downward pressure on wages in the United States, though trade with China has been on the increase without PNTR. Clearly, the US corporate agenda of free trade, privatization and deregulation is taking its toll on workers domestically. But to blame China for US capital flight, and US corporations shifting production to the Third World, is neither fair nor accurate.

China’s admission to the WTO may have a negative impact on Chinese workers. However, it is problematic for the US labor movement to attempt to speak on behalf of Chinese workers. When we advance international policy, it must be in the spirit of internationalism. There is no clear consensus among human rights and labor activists in China with regard to PNTR or WTO. It is chauvinism for the American labor movement to unilaterally speak on behalf of Chinese workers, without even engaging in dialogue with Chinese workers. Within the international labor arena, there clearly is no consensus of support for the US labor movement’s anti-China campaign. The campaign amounts to unilateralism, not internationalism.

China will no doubt oppose the inclusion of human rights and worker rights in trade agreements. China, however, is not alone in this stance. Most Asian countries, indeed, most governments of developing countries oppose such linkage. China will not have a veto within the WTO, and like all 135 member countries, will be expected to follow its rules. The WTO has unequivocally opposed inclusion of labor and human rights in its mandate, and while this will hardly change with China’s inclusion in the WTO, it is hard to imagine that rejection of PNTR status for China would have forced a change in the WTO’s stance.







With or without PNTR, trade with China is increasing, and relations between China and the United States will grow. Labor needs to encourage critical engagement with China, not isolation. This does include criticism of China’s human rights practices. But China is too important for the US labor movement to speak to only via the US media. The American labor movement should take a bold step and seek to open up dialogue and cultivate relationships with workers and trade unions in China. While American labor leaders should continue to meet with Chinese political dissidents, it would also be important to meet with other union leaders and workers in China.

China is home to the largest trade union confederation in the world. While it is true that Chinese trade unions are not independent from the government, they are legitimate worker organizations with 100 million members, and reflect great diversity depending on the industry, sector, geographic area and individual union leadership. The policies of the Cold War have prevented the American labor movement from establishing fraternal relations with trade unions in China. Decades after President Nixon went to China, opening relations with the People’s Republic of China, maybe it is time for AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to consider such an initiative and reach out to Chinese workers.

As recently as 1995, American labor movement representatives were discouraged from attending the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing because China was hosting it. To this day, the AFL-CIO does not recognize the Chinese trade union movement, and Chinese trade unionists cannot visit the United States as official representatives of their unions.

The reality is that China has undergone tremendous change in the past few decades. The Chinese economic system has rapidly transformed from one that was centralized and state-run toward a mixed economy, with a growing market and increasing foreign investment. The results have been both positive and negative for Chinese workers. The economy has experienced significant growth and development, along with dislocation and growing economic inequality. Human rights, political repression and environmental degradation are crucial issues.

In this context of change, would not more worker-to-worker and union-to-union exchange be positive? Inevitably, the problems facing China will have to be addressed by the Chinese people themselves. There is a wide range of political and philosophical perspectives among Chinese trade unionists. There is a major generational transition taking place in China, and a new emerging leadership within the government and within labor unions. Through engaging in more dialogue and exchange with Chinese workers and unions, the American labor movement can identify new leaders of China who embrace a similar perspective on global corporate domination, and the need to defend human rights and labor rights.

The main threat to economic security, dignity and human rights of US workers are domestic and global corporations and their institutions: the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. We need to keep our eyes on the prize, move beyond the Cold War, move beyond unilateralism, and move toward genuine international labor solidarity.

Kent Wong is director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Elaine Bernard is executive director of the Harvard Trade Union Program. This article was originally published in New Labor Forum’s Fall/Winter 2000 issue (






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