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The American Dream Should Not Depend on Chinese Labor

In the wise effort to detangle from Beijing's economy, we need to change the way we think about consumption.

China, Fujian Province, Anxi City, girl working in tea factory (Getty Images)

The Chinese government has posed an economic and technological threat to the United States for decades. This year, their rap sheet is getting so long that Americans cannot afford to ignore it any more: the coverup of COVID-19 last fall; Uighur concentration camps and slave labor exposed in the spring; overt aggression towards Hong Kong in the summer; ongoing blatant information mining from U.S. citizens via apps like TikTok. 

America should not continue to do business with a foreign government that routinely shows utter disdain for other nations, its own people, and human rights and lives. But China has entrenched itself economically in every single major industry and market sector, from medical devices to fashion and textiles to automotive and tech. Like it or not, every American relies on China, every single day. Disentangling ourselves from that reliance will be slow—but if 2020 shows us anything, it’s that this disentanglement is necessary.

China has been gradually gaining control over global supply lines for decades. Its manufacturing dominance has raised the alarms among right-wing politicians, but just like the “Free Tibet” protest against China’s takeover of its independent neighbor, stalwart policy opposition to China remained a niche issue until 2016, when Donald Trump made walking back economic globalization a pillar of his campaign. In March 2018, President Trump ordered a tariff on steel and aluminum imports from China. The tariff sparked an ongoing trade war, as China retaliated with tariffs on over 125 American products. 

The two nations escalated their tariffs for about eighteen months, until in late 2019, the situation took on a new dimension when a Chinese official leaked information documenting egregious human rights violations in government-run reeducation camps. Well over a million Uighur Muslims, a minority people group native to a region they call East Turkestan in northwest China, are being held in these camps, where they are subjected to gruesome torture, medical experimentation, forced sterilization, brainwashing, and forced labor. 

As with Tibet, the Communist regime’s intention here is to eradicate an entire group of people. Using a combination of physical destruction and mental and cultural oppression, the government is determined that this generation of Uighurs will be the last. As the horrors of the camps become known, the U.S. has taken incremental action, starting in October 2019 when America stopped selling technology and resources to 28 Chinese companies that are alleged to benefit from the camps’ slave labor. 

In 2020, relations between our two nations have worsened drastically. China first reported the emergence of a new virus in the city of Wuhan. Within weeks, the virus had spread throughout China; just months later, it was designated a pandemic and had led to millions of deaths globally. 

But coronavirus is not the only complication in U.S.-Chinese relations. In May 2020, China passed a ‘national security law’ that gave it nearly unlimited power over Hong Kong, where protests against Chinese aggression have persisted for over a year. Wielding the new law, Chinese officials in Hong Kong are arresting pro-democracy protestors and, as the U.S. Secretary of State said on August 2, “eviscerat[ing] Hong Kong’s autonomy.”  

After all this, American politicians are finally calling for closer scrutiny of U.S. dependence on China, and urging greater action against the oppressive regime. But as Americans grapple with what to do about China, we must keep in mind the goal: disentanglement, not greater involvement with the Far East. Separating American and Chinese economic interests will help bring about multiple goods. It will give America economic autonomy by returning manufacturing and technology jobs to the heartland. It will also stop rewarding China for violating human rights with forced labor camps and for underpaying and overworking its citizens. And it will destabilize the oppressive Chinese regime without getting the U.S. military further mired in the Far East. 

That third point is worth emphasizing, especially as some Republican politicians are pushing for greater military involvement as the solution to China’s human rights violations. Sen. Tom Cotton (AR) has proposed pouring $43 billion of military resources into increasing the U.S. military’s presence in the Pacific. The plan includes developing a new submarine and new jets, sending more mid-range missiles to bases within China’s sphere of influence, and selling more fighters to Taiwan. 

This proposal is full of militarized jab intended to provoke the Communist regime, which has repeatedly expressed the desire to have a security zone in the Pacific, where the U.S. would have limited power (much like the zone America has in the Western Hemisphere, where China has little presence). It would do little to change China’s incentives to continue exploiting its people, and would simply siphon more of American taxpayers’ dollars into the Far East. 

Cotton’s plan is attractive to many Republicans, however, because it has the virtue of appearing to Do Something while not really requiring Americans to come to terms with the depth of our national entanglement with China. Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher (WI) raised this in a Zoom interview with Fox News Digital in mid-July. He pointed out that China’s human rights violations against the Uighurs are, unfortunately, integrally tied into the world economy. Massive corporations like Apple and the NBA are implicated, with components for Apple products and textiles used in NBA jerseys tied to Chinese forced labor. Other brands benefiting from Uighur forced labor are BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen, among dozens of others, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (the entire report is worth reading). 

The fashion industry is particularly compromised. China is the world’s biggest supplier of cotton, and nearly 84 percent of Chinese cotton comes from East Turkestan—the site of the Uighur camps. A letter signed by more than 180 human rights groups connects nearly all Western clothing companies to labor in these camps. With the recent pandemic, the need for personal protective equipment has skyrocketed—and China has stepped up to meet that need with PPE made by forced Uighur labor

Until American brands do the hard work of disentangling their supply lines from Chinese labor camps, America is incentivizing the Communist regime to continue exploiting its people for profit. This will take a long time, and without pressure from consumers and government alike, many corporations are unlikely to do this because it will be complicated and expensive. While some companies are directly involved with Chinese corporations selling goods made by slave labor, others purchase these goods only after they go through convoluted supply chains which may take years to change. 

The difficulty of the project is in itself no reason not to make complete economic disassociation with China a goal, but it will be a long-term process. The U.S. has taken a few good steps already, such as sanctioning eleven Chinese companies that are directly linked to human rights abuses. A possible next step is to prevent Chinese companies from investing in U.S. companies, a step that would stem the tide of American businesses that are being bought up by Chinese corporations. If Chinese producers refuse to disavow slave labor and continue to exercise inhumane business practices, America could issue a more wide-spread ban against Chinese imports in certain particularly problematic industries like fashion and housewares. As a drastic step, the U.S. could work to have China excluded from the World Trade Organization.  

Ultimately, however, it comes down to the American consumer. Americans have grown used to having cheap, plentiful goods available in a wide variety. Consumerism is “the good life” to Americans; our culture pushes us to buy more and more things, promising that the acquisition of stuff will make us happy. Think of the trend of “fast fashion,” where consumers use clothing as a disposable good to be worn and replaced after just a few months instead of an item worth investing in, caring for, and using for years. This principle carries over to home goods (how often do Americans throw something away because it is slightly broken instead of fixing it?), tech (spurred by Apple’s controversial “planned obsolescence” design, which forces users to buy new devices more frequently), and automobiles. 

Unfortunately, this massive accumulation is only possible because of exploitive labor practices in China, which make it possible for China to export huge amounts of goods at rock-bottom prices for Western consumption.

It is true that our consumeristic throwaway habits depend on Chinese exploitive labor. But the reverse is also true; without huge Western markets for cheap, poorly made goods—markets that so far have been tolerant of low wages, unsafe working conditions, and forced labor—Chinese corporations might be forced rethink their exploitive business models.  

Government and corporate disentanglement with China is absolutely necessary. But it can only take us so far, because the entanglement runs deeper than mere dollars and cents. Americans have become dependent on a throwaway way of life that is only sustainable through constant streams of cheap goods from China. If we are truly concerned about exploitation, slave labor, reeducation camps, and China’s efforts to wipe out minorities within its borders, Americans have to change our conception of the good life. 

Jane Scharl writes from Phoenix, Arizona.

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