Sitting at a sidewalk coffee shop a block from the White House, Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, is reflecting on a series of visits he’s made since 2002 to China, where he has discussed organizing and collective bargaining with leaders of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). China’s economic transformation is a profound challenge to the United States, and to American workers in particular, Stern says. "We have to recognize that China is the first real economic competitor that has ever threatened America’s standing as the global economic superpower."
Few would argue that the rise of China has world-altering significance. But across the American left there are sharp, sometimes acrimonious differences about what constitutes appropriate and principled responses to China’s emergence as a great power, and whether the country’s ascendance is promising or ominous. Even Stern’s visits to China over the past decade have drawn withering fire from other labor leaders, along with human rights and globalization activists, who vilify the ACFTU as an instrument of antiworker repression by China’s ruling Communist Party. "Andy Stern seems to think he can find progressive elements within the ACFTU. And the SEIU is OK with that?" asks Sophie Richardson, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. Jeffrey Fiedler, a longtime activist on China, an official at the International Union of Operating Engineers and a member of the Congressionally mandated US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (ESRC), is scathing. "Andy Stern threw away all principle and started dealing with the ACFTU. The head of the ACFTU is on the fucking Politburo!" he exclaims. "He’s a thug."
Many in the labor movement, of course, are riled by their belief that export factories in China, often managed by US and other multinational corporations, are stealing American manufacturing jobs. They view China as the biggest player in a worldwide rush by US and other corporations to take advantage of cheap labor and lax regulatory regimes in much of the developing world, whose producers stock the shelves of American shopping malls with imported goods. "The global imbalances generally—with Germany, Japan, China, Korea and others focused on an export model and relentlessly wedded to it without concern for moving to a more balanced marketplace—have a direct destabilizing effect on the global economy, and on this economy in particular, and can’t be sustained," says Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. "And so the United States has to move into a series of much more fraught confrontations and challenges, not just with the Chinese."
The implications of China’s rapid ascent go far beyond those concerns. It is fast becoming an economic giant, moving from low-end assembly lines and garment sweatshops to high-end products and innovative approaches to green technology, including wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars. Despite the uncontrolled, almost Wild West nature of capitalism in China, for many developing countries its muscular combination of top-down political control and state-guided industrial growth represents a palpable challenge to the dominant post–World War II paradigm of American-style development, and it is an attractive one in many quarters. "I am concerned that there are other places in the world where China’s form of authoritarian capitalism is taking hold," says Carolyn Bartholomew, vice chair of the ESRC and a former aide to Representative Nancy Pelosi. "Look at how China is engaging in Africa."