What China teaches us about ourselves

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Several news stories coincided recently to graphically illustrate the terrible inequalities in our global village.

In London, and in other rich cities around the world, people queued for days to be the first to buy the new Apple iPhone 5. Not everybody was queuing to buy for themselves. Some people (plebs?) were being paid hundreds of pounds to stand in line for days on behalf of other, presumably richer individuals, who had better things to do with their time.

Meanwhile in China, workers at the massive factories which produce Apple products were understandably showing signs of extreme stress, erupting into violence. These factories sound like something from a dystopian nightmare: tens of thousands of migrant workers crammed into dormitories, working long hours for low pay with scant regard for their rights or their welfare. The trade unions that exist are little more than a branch of government, and independent groups that have been set up to promote workers rights are constantly in danger of being suppressed. Little wonder that worker suicide has become a relatively common occurrence.

Of course, this is why China can afford to produce so cheaply the goods we crave. It is also why jobs have been exported from Europe and America to China, causing unemployment here at home. We need to decide whether we want decent conditions for workers everywhere, or access to cheap gadgets. We probably can’t have both.

Thankfully there is a slowly growing awareness of the price Chinese workers are paying for our luxury goods, and there are the beginnings of a show of solidarity with them, from students and workers

But interestingly, in the midst of all this turmoil, the Chinese government itself is beginning to realise that when a country’s population feels insecure and anxious, its economy cannot thrive. In a fascinating programme on Radio 4, Rana Mitter told how, realising it cannot continue to rely solely on exports, China’s leaders are planning to improve welfare provision for its citizens.

Until relatively recently, the State had provided housing and basic needs in a form of Welfare State that was called the Iron Rice Bowl, but now people dread poverty, sickness and old age so much, they are afraid to spend. The resulting low domestic consumption is seen as a drag on the economy, holding China back. A new Iron Rice Bowl is planned, for the good of the country.

As our own government slashes welfare provision, and plans to slash it further, we have low demand in the economy because all but the rich are unable or afraid to spend. It’s probably too much to hope that they would look at China and learn a lesson.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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