China’s new revolutionaries: U.S. consumers

Who would have thought that tainted pet food and toys would threaten to unravel the authoritarian export model of Chinese growth that the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 was partly meant to secure? China’s then “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping, who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution, could well imagine how political upheaval would derail China’s stable path to prosperity. But it surely never entered his mind, nor that of his descendant comrades, that the fickle American consumer would one day become, as the students in the square wanted to be, the agent of revolutionary change in China.

In the name of sovereignty, China’s leaders for a long time have gotten away with suppressing their own citizens while ignoring the get-gloriously-rich-quick corruption that has thrived in the absence of the rule of law. But, thanks to globalization, China’s export reliance on the U.S. market has imported the political demands of the U.S. consumer into the equation. Americans won’t hesitate to cut the import lifeline and shift away from Chinese products that might poison their children or kill their pets.

Unlike organized labor or human rights groups, consumers don’t have to mobilize to effect change; they only have to stop spending. And their bargaining agents -- Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us -- have immensely more clout than the AFL-CIO and Amnesty International in fostering change in China.

Ironically, the United States’ “most favored nation” trade treatment for China (and its later entry into the World Trade Organization), which labor and human rights groups so virulently opposed in the past, has become a Trojan horse. China’s future is now so linked to the American consumer that Beijing will be forced to curb corruption and strengthen regulation through the rule of law or face the certain doom of its export-led growth.

No sanction is more devastating than consumer choice. Live by the market, die by the market. For consumers to trust Chinese products, they must trust regulation of those products. And regulation cannot be trusted without the rule of law, which doesn’t bend to bribery, fraud and quanxi (connections).

Historically in the West, it was the emergent bourgeoisie who demanded the protection and rights that led to the rule of law and democracy. And the ultimate paradox of Deng’s soft totalitarianism is that privatizing people’s lives will ultimately deprive the authorities of their power. As more people come to enjoy private freedom, fewer will abide it being taken away. Globalization, it seems, has accelerated this process by forging a kind of objective coalition of the growing Chinese middle class and the American consumer in favor of the rule of law.

China hardly needs to start from scratch to address this issue. Before he was retired (read: purged) in a power struggle with (then-Premier) Li Peng and (then-President and party chief) Jiang Zemin in 1997, Qiao Shi sat down with me for a rare interview. At the time, he was the third-ranking member of the Politburo and chairman of the National People’s Congress.

While his competitors stressed economic growth and party control, Qiao emphasized the need for “the rule of law and strengthening the legal system.” He insisted when we met in the Great Hall of the People that “any infringement on laws by the law enforcers, overriding of law by administrative authorities or perversion of justice for personal gain must be stopped.”

For Qiao, “according to the constitution, all power in the country belongs to the people, and the people exercise state power through the National People’s Congress and local people’s congresses at various levels. To ensure that the people are the real masters of the country, that state power is really in their hands, we must strengthen these institutions and give them full play.”

When I asked the $64,000 question -- whether the party was above the law or the law above the party -- Qiao responded without hesitation, to the evident consternation of his handlers, that “no organization or individual has the prerogative to override the constitution or the law.”

Perhaps today the leaders in Beijing will feel compelled to return to the spirit of Qiao’s agenda in the wake of the current crisis in global consumer confidence over Chinese products. Savvy consumers are not likely to buy China’s response of prosecuting or executing high-level officials -- “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” They simply want the lead removed from their children’s toys or they will take their purchases elsewhere.

Of course, a move toward the reliable rule of law is not democracy, but it is a big step on the long march in that direction.

Some years ago, the once-famous but now forgotten dissident, Wei Jingsheng, lamented how the attention of global public opinion and that of most Chinese had shifted “from Democracy Wall [where Wei was arrested for putting up posters calling for democratic political reforms] to the shopping mall.”

Now, especially as the spotlight of next summer’s Olympics approaches, it seems the tables may be turning again.

Nathan Gardels, editor in chief of New Perspectives Quarterly, is the author of “The Changing Global Order: World Leaders Reflect.”