Old trade routes, new approaches?

China’s legendary creativity, from the silkworm to Ming porcelain, is celebrated in museums throughout the world. The finest of everything was transported on camels from Xi’an to Kashar through one of the world’s harshest deserts to reach Western courts eager for the most beautiful goods from the mysterious East. 

After the devastating effects of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese collectors are eagerly gathering up old national treasures from around the world. But a rebirth of creativity is also taking place within, and the big question is whether China will refashion the way in which the world does business, end its old copycat ways and be an engine for new ideas or join free-market capitalism turning more than a billion people into voracious consumers. 

There is another dimension to China’s trade relations too. When other countries decide to increase the amount of trade they do with the People’s Republic, it’s never long before the human rights question is raised. Can a government’s treatment of its people be completely separated from economics when dealing with oppressive regimes? 

Some will always believe it’s unethical to do any trade with countries that have a dismal human rights record, others believe trade and human rights are entirely separate issues. But the loudest voices – including most countries’ governments – maintain that trade agreements can put pressure on authoritarian leaders to clean up their act and that opening up countries to free trade exposes them to outside scrutiny. 

Western leaders visiting China to discuss trading partnerships usually promise to raise the issue of human rights to pacify campaigners at home. But, in reality, the leverage they wield is relative to the strength of their economy and how important their country is to China strategically. The plight of Tibetans – their country occupied by China since the 1950s – is the issue that foreign dignitaries visiting Beijing are under most pressure to discuss with the Communist Party leadership. But the popularity of the poor old Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, waxes and wanes with the global economy. Angela Merkel’s support for him collapsed with the euro. In 2007, she was happy to receive the Dalai Lama in Berlin, but she said little about human rights during a visit to the People’s Republic in 2012, when she was hoping that Chinese investment might offset problems in the Eurozone. 

British Prime Minister David Cameron received the Dalai Lama in London in 2012, but told coalition ministers to pull out of subsequent meetings after the Chinese leadership made its displeasure known. Britain, too, is struggling with the after effects of recession. 

But what about trade that furthers human rights abuses? The notorious Foxconn – which had to put up safety nets around its biggest factory in Shenzhen in an attempt to stem the suicides of desperately unhappy workers – would not exist on the scale it does without the contracts it holds to make iPhones and PCs for the West. European and American garment manufacturers have also failed to take leadership when it comes to the long hours and low wages endured by factory workers in China, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam. 

The endless quest of multinationals to keep shareholders happy and prices competitive puts enormous pressure on factories in developing countries to keep their own costs very low – and this is never going to be good news for workers. In some of the old colonies, European powers seized great riches for themselves, but didn’t do a great deal to improve the countries they colonised. By contrast, modern-day China has won some brownie points by providing much-needed infrastructure in Africa, even though it has also taken raw materials for its own purposes. 

The challenge is to develop trading models between East and West that will foster honest business relations and decent profits, while restricting the perceived need for shareholder value at the expense of those at the bottom of the food chain. It needs truly visionary economists to make this a reality.


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