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Are US Corporations That Do Business In China Truly Ethical?

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Are US Corporations That Do Business In China Truly Ethical?

Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny. ~Edmund Burke

Most would agree that the rule of law is the most equitable form of control.

At its most elemental level, rule of law is the systematic approach to ensure that no one is above the law and that punishments for the breach of the law are followed as prescribed by law.

The other option is called the rule of man, in which a group rules become arbitrary and certain members are outside of the law.

As Guantanamo and many of the events of the early 21st century show, even those countries that claim to rule by law, are not immune to miscues.

Taking this into consideration, one must consider that a country will tend towards one type of law or the other, and this dictates to a great extent, the freedom that its citizens feel and enjoy.

China and the Rule of Man

Perhaps one of the best things that came out of the Olympics was to illuminate just how much the People’s Republic of China depends or utilizes the unpredictable rule of man.

A dramatic example would be the stifling of the news of the tainted milk story by China’s Sanlu, which was delayed so as not to give the ruling communist party a black eye during the Olympics.

This event (100) played a role in yanking off the cover of deceit that can pervade China and her legal system. Quite possibly this type of deceit would have gone unnoticed had it not occurred during the Olympics (101), just as it had before (102).

This singular incident shed light on the complicity of the system and upon China’s tendency to block a complete flow of information regarding the reality of life in China and her legal system. Although it was allegedly known for months before the scandal became public (103) that Sanlu was poisoning children, no one said a word.

Even China’s partner Fronterra, allegedly did not force the issue to become public because it would spoil the Olympic party.

starbucks china

Major Corporations in Collusion With Communist China

When companies collude with the Chinese Communist Party in corruption like this either overtly or covertly, they are as much a part of the problem as the men and women that make and then disobey the laws.

The real problem may be that as companies like Apple, Starbucks and Disney are increasing their profits in China, the knowledge about the realities of what is going on in China can be troublesome.

For instance, Starbucks ethics dictate that they be “… responsible and doing things that are good for the planet and each other. (104)”, and Apple contends that “Apple’s code of conduct for suppliers covers expectations in five key areas: labor and human rights, health and safety, environmental impact, ethics and management commitment. (105)”

However, how would Starbucks and Apple shareholders feel if they knew the realities of doing business in China?

Would they still believe in Starbucks and Apple’s code of ethics if they knew that the country providing much of the impetus for growth (106) and profit (107) was the same country that had illegally detained people (108), tortured and “disappeared them” all in the name of hosting a wonderful Olympic games?

Would it be discomforting for the shareholders of Disney, a company that claims:

“At Disney, we believe that being a good corporate citizen is not just the right thing to do; it also benefits our guests, our employees and our businesses. It makes the Company a desirable place to work, reinforces the attractiveness of our brands and products and strengthens our bonds with consumers and neighbors in communities around the world (109).”

Would it trouble Disney shareholders to know that a Disney supplier in China allegedly uses underage workers to produce goods for the likes of Disney and Walmart? (118)

If the stockholders had complete information, would they too be complicit in their silence and/or coverup of what is happening in China?

chinese revolution

Corporate Ethics – Do They Not Apply in China?

While proclamations of ‘corporate ethics’ sound great in the board room, they often times seem to be at odds with the reality in China.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Maybe it is acceptable to put aside the pursuit of a notion as ephemeral as human rights when more concrete issues such as earnings-per-share loom so large.

Our historical ignorance of China can be explained away by China’s tendency to remain aloof and uninviting. Centuries ago, teaching a foreigner Chinese was a crime punishable by death. Behind the great wall, the Chinese emperors ruled in silence.

What is more incredible and indicative of Chinese lack of transparency and openness is the fact that much of the world still remains completely unaware of events that took place from 1958-61, when it is reputed that some 30 million people perished.

The cultural revolution is another more modern example where up to ten million people may have died in a ten year span, but once again no one is quite sure, as there are no remaining Chinese records of the event.

But that was then and this is now.

One would hope that in the information age things would be different, but as long as large corporations are fattening their coffers, maybe things have not changed all that much.

corrupt china

The Reality of Law in China Today

Ai Wei Wei, a well-known Chinese activist artist and one of the creators of China’s Olympic Bird’s Nest once said:

“The worst thing about Beijing is that you can never trust the judicial system…It’s like a sandstorm, everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else’s will, somebody else’s power. (111)”

One could not expect China, a country ruled thousands of years under the rule of man, to change their structure in the thirty years since it has opened.

One could, however, hope that with all of the international pressure and vigilance that some sort of change would be forthcoming. Sadly enough this does not seem to be the case.

When asked about the current state of affairs in the People’s Republic of China, Paul Mooney said:

“I think if you put aside some of the recent events in Tibet and Xinjiang and the crackdown on the Falun Gong, which was quite harsh, that this is the worst thing that’s happened; certainly the worst thing to affect kind of Chinese people in general. To me, I was here in 1989 – this is the worst it’s been since 1989.”

What has happened, according to prominent Chinese lawyers, is the systematic breakdown of the art of ‘lawyering’ and its intended consequences.

A Breakdown of Law

An emerging body of critics, including Mo Shaoping, present a depressing picture of the legal world in China (112).

His assertions include that in present day China, judicial reform has been set aside in favor of the three supremes:

1 – the Party,
2 – the people
3 – the law

And they are prioritized in that order.

Lawyers are expected to:

“…pay attention to politics, take into consideration the overall situation, and observe proper discipline; there is no mention of the word ‘law’, there is no mention that lawyers should follow the law when providing service to clients. (113)…. does the legal profession exist in an environment and system of rule of law? ….not one that relies on rule of law, rather it relies on the law of the Party [the Chinese Communist Party].

From the selection and appointment of [Party] cadres, we are under the Department’s control. Our armed forces are under the absolute leadership of the Military Commission of the Party and thus absolutely obeys Party leadership; our ideology is under the increasingly strict control of the Propaganda Department, including the judiciary’s ideology. … China itself does not follow a principle of judicial independence in organizing its judicial system…”

And it would appear that his assertions have merit and things are getting worse (114).

The shackling of lawyers, especially those who seek to protect the people most disadvantaged by the system via human rights violations, are frequently the target of retribution from the Communist party in China (115).

ai wei wei

Systematic Abuse and Harassment of Lawyers

Reports of abuse of these defenders of justice (116) have provoked such a level of fear and anxiety that of China’s 204,000 lawyers only a few hundred will even consider taking a human rights case in China (117).

When they do, bad things can happen to them both professionally (118) and their family.

Ai Wei Wei describes a scary China – a place with hidden spots and people without an identity. He describes the ability of the police to “disappear people”, where you are left alone and only your family is crying. You cannot get answers from the street communities or officials, or even at the highest levels – the court or the police or the head of the nation (119.)

He goes on to assert that you are held in total isolation and do not know how long you will be there, but believe they can do anything to you (120).

At least one Chinese civil rights lawyer could well understand Ai Wei Wei’s words. It has been alleged that one human righs lawyer was taken into custody 78 times (121) and that Gao Zhisheng, among others, was “disappeared” for for over a year.

Held Indefinitely Without Cause or Due Process

In Ai Wei Wei’s case, he was describing his own disappearance of 81 days, which by Chinese law is not illegal.

One can still be held for up to 37 days before a formal arrest must be made. In addition, one can be held under various other forms of detention, such as “re-education” through labor and house arrest. In the case of house arrest, one can be held for up to six months without being formally charged (122).

China is only now considering moving to not allow confessions garnered by torture into court (123).

What is more worrisome is that instead of amending such laws for the better, they seem to be taking a step back.

The Chinese government has recently stated that it is considering changing the laws to allow a six month incarceration period where prisoners will be detained and their families will not know where they are, nor why they have been held (124).

This is an alarming change, for at present the police must at a minimum inform the family of the detainee of his status.

The fear of many is that this new system of state-sponsored disappearances will be used and abused to punish and intimidate those who wish to voice dissent. When a person can vanish for up to six months with no trial and no transparent control on his whereabouts, one has to worry about what is coming next.


Physical Abuse and Torture

China has also been accused of physical abuse of its prisoners, and stories like that of a lawyer named Ni Yulan are not uncommon.

Ms. Ni, a lawyer who chose to represent those who were forcibly evicted to make way for the Olympics, said that she was beaten so badly in prison that she heard her own bones crack, and subsequently needed crutches to walk.

Her charge at that time: “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, apparently a Communist euphemism for helping the needy before the Olympics (125).

But it did not stop there, for after the Olympics she was arrested again and deprived of her crutches so that she was forced to crawl everywhere she went, even to the toilet. (126)

A similar fate befell one of China’s most famous lawyers – Chen Guangcheng – who, although blind, taught himself law.

He alleges that while imprisoned he was abused and then both he and his wife were put under house arrest.

He claimed that the police were upset with his showing a video of their detention, and so subsequently beat him and then returned again to vent their spleen (incredible story – 127) (128)

walmart china

Closing the Book on the 2008 Olympics in China

If what you have read over the course of the last few weeks in this Olympics series has been bothersome to you as a reader, than I congratulate you.

For, the point of this entire exercise of reporting on China’s post-Olympic promises was to expose the realities of China today.

Citizen activism is a good thing, and perhaps it is time to start assessing China with an eye for truth – looking at what is truly good and what is truly bad.

However, in order to get to this level of analysis, we need to force U.S. companies, and even ourselves as a society, to take a more realistic look at this country.

We need to look beyond the corporate feel-good speeches, and understand what all of our trading partners are really doing in China.

For, if we really wish to learn anything from China hosting the Olympics, then we must truly learn not only about China, but also about ourselves and how greed might blind us.

We must open our eyes to the realities, the pain, suffering and injustice and take note of how our ignorance and inaction can enable such things to continue.

If we truly want to know what is happening in our world, then we have got to start demanding the truth.

Chinese Voices that Must Be Heard

What good came from China being allowed to host the Olympic games in 2008?

One could argue that although things may not have improved in many important respects, the games did much for yanking off the blanket of secrecy that has obscured China for most of its existence. Maybe, at a minimum, those people whose rights had been trampled upon during those two years, could at least feel vindicated and heard by the world.

Maybe they will have a chance to lay their stories at the feet of not just those in their villages or provinces, but to the nearly 7 billion people on the globe.

I would argue that for all of those who lost their homes and or lives, that some good did come of all of this. That at least they now have a name, and their stories are told.

For now, we can no longer claim ignorance and state we had no idea. If nothing else, the information age has equipped us with a tool to be an active part in the events surrounding us.

What corrupt Chinese leaders or greedy Corporations may do is one thing, but what we chose to do and how we chose to behave, however, is a different matter entirely.

Now is the time to look upon ourselves and realize that every action – even non-action – is a decision in support of, or in opposition to, the unethical practices that government leaders and U.S. businesses are conducting every day in China.
Image Credits:

(1) The Australian
(2) Counterfeit Chic
(3) Wikipedia

Originally published on

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