Friday, December 16, 2005

*The high price of the low price* Over the past weekend,

The high price of the low price

Over the past weekend, thousands of representatives of governments,
official delegates, NGOs and grass roots organisations flooded into Hong
Kong. The citizens of this city, symbol of free trade unlimited and its
rather questionable, but mostly non confessed effects on architecture,
people’s health and the environment, expected them rather scared. For
weeks the media had launched articles on Korean peasants going to commit
suicide in the middle of their streets, violent demonstrations and
possible terrorist attacks. The first, very peaceful and creative march of
about 7000 activists – most of them women, as observers underlined - on
Sunday started to break the ice, the second march on Tuesday helped even
more to make Hong Kong inhabitants understand that the presence of
foreigners protesting against the WTO Ministerial in their city was not
meant to destroy their homes and rights of movement, but to voice
disagreement with the ongoing negotiations of an international treaty.
Interesting enough, while the international press seems to have focused
more on a hundred Korean NGO members jumping into the river in front of
the WTO venue on the evening of the official first WTO day, followed by
very limited clashes with the police, the local press, quite well
informed, reported more on the contents of the different activities of the
events around the opening of the 6^th WTO Ministerial.

Soon after the registration of delegates, NGOs and press, many of them had
already an additional white lace around their necks, with a slogan which
might sound familiar to you: “No deal is better than a bad deal”. We
will see later this week, if former European Union trade commissioner and
present WTO director general Pascal Lamy succeeds in inversing the
generally sceptical mood.

The Green/EFA group decided to initiate their activities in Hong Kong with
an astonishingly unique approach: “Where are we? What are the problems of
the people where the Ministerial takes place? What is the next step?” In
fact, the Green/EFA seminar on Hong Kong and the surrounding industrial
area of the Pearl River Delta (PRD) has turned out to be the only place
where people from the West invited activists from China and Hong Kong to
present and discuss their problems and alternatives of an economic model
built up around trade. The underlying question “Is the model sustainable?
Is ‘slow trade’ – echoing the Italian ‘slow food campaign’ in terms
of quality, wellbeing and sustainability - possible, here and elsewhere?”
bridged the general division between the Chinese and the people interested
in WTO from abroad and initiated a hopefully fruitful dialogue in the

After a first introduction to Hong Kong and China on Monday, organised for
us by Ms. Lau Kinchi, an extraordinarily skilled, convincing and
sympathetic fellow of ARENA (Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives)
and a briefing by the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, the Green/EFA
delegation participated in the opening march on Tuesday. On Wednesday, our
seminar “The Pearl River Delta: can it still grow? World market
production against local production in the powerhouse of China” initiated
the series of events taking place in the venue of the Heinrich Boell
Foundation, the Knutsford Hotel in Kowloon (see
in his welcoming speech, that the Greens/EFA wanted to see what is behind
the figures representing trade: how is the life of the real people and
what is the real production of goods behind nice or naughty statistics. As
people need to benefit first, what conditions are necessary? Au Loong-Yu
from the Hong Kong Globalisation Monitor showed that while China is
represented as the biggest winner of the current economic model, the
workers in China as elsewhere are the losers and that action has started
to create awareness in order to stop the downward spiral. It is not only
the low wages that make investors move to China, but also the existing
discipline and the immense and intense social control allowing for making
China competitive, but what is the price for workers? He did not believe
in the usefulness of existing codes of conducts, as they should be
legally, and not only morally binding. The problem is not the absence of
laws, but the failure to implement and monitor them. The Chinese model is
already unsustainable, he said. The stakeholders who are the victims at
present must be empowered so that things can change.

In a second session chaired by british MEP Caroline Lucas, Han Dongfang
from the China Labour Bulletin presented the concrete case of the Italian
company Decoro, which produces sofas in China. After a 20 % wages cut its
managers physically attacked three opposing workers, until they were sent
to hospital and afterwards sacked without corresponding compensation. Hand
Dongfang sees the WTO as a double edged sword: on the one edge it opens
China’s economy, on the other hand it broadens the gap between the rich
and the poor in the country, not at least profiting from the long standing
cultural tradition of discipline and acceptance to swallow whatever is
imposed. The way out he sees is not help from the West, but empowerment of
the Chinese workers and the development of a civil society.

Poon Man Hon from the HK Confederation of Trade Union, the Hong Kong
branch of the ICFTU, presented examples in the Pearl River Delta as the
Gold Peak company, with its high pollution and presented the difficulties
for trade unionists to mobilise workers in a country, where trade unions
posts used to be taken over by factory directors. The Gold Peak company
produces batteries mainly for the European market, with highly polluting
cadmium. This will definitely be a campaign to develop.

A third session was initiated by Christine Loh from Civil Exchange, a HK
think tank of, as she says, “intellectual activists” with very green
ideas. Presenting the case of the highly unsustainable economic model
pursued in the Pearl River Delta, she compared the situation to that of a
man who grows fatter and fatter. What to do, when he get ill, bursting out
of his vest? Make him new clothes or go back to the origin of his fatness?

Kevin May from Greenpeace Hong Kong showed “The dark Side of Growth: the
case of electronics”, which shocked the audience, just by the evidence of
facts: the PRD§ is one of the giant producers and exporters of
electronics, and it is also a harbour – for re-export to other developing
countries – and importer of electronic waste. A mobile phone is a status
symbol, pretty outside, but dirty inside. Every hour, 4000 t of electronic
waste are produced (that is to say 16 000 t during the time of our
seminar), with inorganic polluants and heavy metals that are shipped –
often via EU harbours – back to China. Giuyu, not far from Hong Kong, is
called the city of garbage. The people’s work there consists of
separating metals from the rest, cutting, heartening, burning. And
exposing their lives to highly polluting substances, without any health
care, risk insurance, compensation. Another arena to take action!

In a final round table, the French MEP Marie-H矇l`ene Aubert recalled the
strange situation that demonstrators seem to belong to the “landscape”
of events like the WTO ministerials, with delegates taking souvenir
pictures of them instead of taking their concerns seriously and asked for
a better integration of both sides of the political struggle. Claudia
Roth, co-president of the German Greens, said that this disintegration is
also true at the international political level: the negotiators on human
rights who meet in Geneva never meet those negotiating the follow-up of
the Kyoto Protocol in Montreal who never see the Hong Kong negotiators for
the WTO. Jill Evans considered that her first task on return to Wales
would be to inform and make people see the whole picture, when companies
close in Europe and reopen in China. This is also what Christine Loh
echoed and enlarged: “You are not seeing the story of Hong Kong or of
China, but the story of trade. And you need to tell the full story.”

That is what we are trying to do in the coming days.

Gaby K"uppers, 14.12.2005, from Hong Kong

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