Sunday, July 8, 2007

China and the Progressive Era?

An article in the New York Times Week in Review, "Can China Reform Itself?" caught my attention today. The article, by Joseph Kahn, dealt with attempts in China to deal with issues of consumer goods quality control, adulterated food, etc. Kahn compared what China is trying to do todaywith regulatory reforms begun in the early twentieth century in the U.S. in the period historians call the "Progressive Era."

While the article was informative and intelligent and well aware of the original U.S legislations' limitations, there are a few significant points which both our readers and Chinese readers might find useful.

First, Upton Sinclair's classic socialist novel, The Jungle, helped create support for the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and early pure food and drug laws by exposing the horrific conditions in Chicago meat packing plants, where the fingers of maimed workers found their way into sausages and other products.

Also, while capitalists could not regulate themselves and were hostile to government regulation, leaders of the industrial and financial trusts realized that some form of regulation was necessary since adulterated U.S. agricultural products were being rejected in European countries where regulation was more advanced and the U.S. position as the leading industrial exporter of the world might be threatened.

Chinese products have been under similar attack recently, but here the analogy should really end. China remains a country even with its tremendous uneven development, committed to Socialism and its government and media can act to use planning and regulatory methods to institute quality control far in advance of what the developed capitalist countries did in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially if the Communist Party of China directs its attention to protecting Chinese workers and Chinese and foreign consumers, not seeking to strike a "balance" between the interests of workers and consumers and the interests of capitalists to maximize profits.

Also, as the article failed to mention, the U.S. today is not exactly a regulatory model for China or any other country, capitalist or socialist, since right-wing Republicans since the Reagan presidency have both preached and practiced a gospel of "deregulation" which has undermined undermined regulatory legislation dealing with the banks, the stock market, labor law, discrimination, and the enforcement of the pure food and drug laws.

Both "corporate friendly" deregulation policies, chronic underfunding, and the staffing of regulatory agencies with administrators ideologically committed to supporting business generally and big business specifically should provide both Chinese with a "model" that they should avoid at all costs and Americans with a "model" that they must reject completely if they are to protect their health and welfare.

--Norman Markowitz

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