In this week when we commemorate the first proclamation of American ideals to the wider world, we should pause to contemplate which of our ideals are taking root today. Consider, for instance, the very self-interested testimony of Fu Chengyu, the chief executive of CNOOC Ltd., the oil company owned by the Chinese government, which is currently endeavoring to buy Unocal Corp.
"The Chinese people and government are learning from the U.S.," Fu told the Los Angeles Times last Friday. "We are adopting the free-trade system very quickly. . . . We are using U.S. bankers, advisors, exactly meeting the processes of U.S. market requirements" for mergers and acquisitions. On Monday China's foreign ministry warned U.S. politicians to "stop interfering in the normal commercial exchanges between enterprises of the two countries."
Now, there's a statement of American values for our time. And we may even forgive the Chinese just a bit if they are confused over which values we Americans take seriously. Freedom of religion? Speech? Assembly? If those really matter to Americans, why are all these American companies building factories in China to take advantage of workers whose labor comes cheap partly because they lack the freedom to better their lot?
If nothing else, CNOOC's bid for Unocal is forcing us to prioritize our conflicting ideals. The offer pits traditional nationalism against the conservative belief in free trade and laissez-faire capitalism. It comes as a fire bell in the night for the pure free-traders, what with communist China en route to becoming our chief capitalist rival. Surely there must be some companies -- Boeing Co., say, or Intel Corp. -- whose sale to the Chinese government even the Wall Street Journal editorial board would oppose.
However extensive China's involvement in our economy, our involvement in China's will surely pose further challenges to our values. Already a number of American businesses there, Wal-Mart first and foremost, are moving their contractors' factories from China's more developed southern coast to even lower-wage and less-regulated inland regions. (It may help to think of these corporations as new-age versions of the legendary hooligans of the Old West: When the law comes to Dodge, they strike out for the next boomtown where there's still no sheriff.)
But China is home to more labor strife than any country in the world. What will happen when these illegal strikes grow even more widespread, when workers demand democracy and the right to form unions? In the next iteration of Tiananmen Square, will American business and its apologists side with the tanks or the man standing in the street to block them?
This August still another conundrum for the champions of globalized capitalism will emerge. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents the janitors and is endeavoring to represent the security guards in the high-rises of major cities, will convene in Chicago a gathering of similar unions from around the world. In many nations the janitors and guards are now employed by the same global building maintenance and security companies. (Even so profoundly American a company as the once-goonish Pinkertons is now owned by a Scandinavian multinational.)
The SEIU and its allies want to build a global union in a global industry with global employers, enabling security guards in nations with strong worker rights and contracts to pressure employers who are exploiting security guards in nations with no such rights or contracts. Janitors and security guards don't run the risk of their jobs being shipped abroad, but the security guards of Los Angeles or Pretoria may well need the assistance of the security guards of Copenhagen to win a living wage.
Whether a global union, or just an alliance of national unions, will emerge from the Chicago meeting is impossible to predict. But global unions are surely coming, and when they do, they'll pose a challenge for polemicists for the new global order. For if the goal of globalization is simply to maximize shareholder value, then the rise of global labor will be viewed as some new pandemic, threatening profit margins with -- oh, the horror -- a fairer distribution of income. But for commentators who insist that globalization is today's way to realize the greatest good for the greatest number, the advent of global unions could force them to stop their ad hominem attacks on their critics as protectionists and compel them to explain what model of globalization they have in mind. Do we stand, with the Chinese communists at Unocal, for the interests of shareholders? Or is America about something more than that?
Last week, I wrote about the efforts of 19-year-old Marie Gonzalez, a star high school student whose undocumented parents brought her to Missouri from Costa Rica when she was 5, to avoid deportation, set for yesterday, back to Costa Rica. Missouri's two senators declined to intervene on her behalf. Last Friday the Department of Homeland Security ruled that Marie could stay, though her parents had to go back.