PBS’s Bill Moyers airs last broadcast...a reminder that China and the US aren't always too different

Sometimes it’s easy to “exoticize” China, and think that China’s issues are completely unique. We may find it odd that officials have a structural incentive to either squash legitimate protests, which take the name “mass incidents”, or to buy off the petitioners with money from specially allocated “social stability” funds, rather than dealing with the root of the grievance itself. Likewise, we may find it bizarre than even China (yes China!) has things like cross dressing pop artists. Sometimes it seems like every art gallery in Hong Kong is required to have a kitschy Mao portrait or some post-modern take on sexy 1970’s-era female Red Guards – to appeal to the foreign demand for exoticized kitsch combined with absurd cruelty.

However, as far as workers rights goes, there are actually many similarities between China and the US once you look past the surface level. This point was brought home to me when I saw the last episode in veteran American reporter Bill Moyers 40-plus year career in journalism end last week with the close of his TV program “the Journal”. On this show, Moyers consistently profiled stories and issues that most American cable news shows only gave passing mention of. Corruption in government, financial deregulation, union issues, citizen activism, discussions about race, spirituality, Native American issues…all of these were regular topics.

In his final episode, Moyers profiled the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) – a grassroots organization. As I listened to how CCI mobilized citizens to oppose a proposed bill that would have allowed large corporate agri-businesses to put huge amounts of hog manure on icy fields in the winter (which would subsequently leak directly into the ecosystem and drinking water once the spring came), and how the CCI fought for better conditions for workers who were suffering chronic workplace injuries, I couldn’t help but think of many of the similarities between China and the US.

The labour and environmental problems in both countries often stem from the strong hold that large corporations have over the legislative process and local enforcement efforts. There’s not too much of a difference between companies that are allowed to pour chemicals directly into rivers and companies that are allowed to pollute the ecosystem with millions of pounds of hog manure. Both result in common people becoming sick. Simply put, governments in both countries are all too often in the hands of powerful business interests, not the people. Also, the mainstream media in both countries doesn’t do a good job of highlighting grassroots progressive movements. Of course, in China, the government runs a large-scale censorship apparatus that can “harmonize” stories it doesn’t like. However, although China’s market-driven media often does a valiant job reporting on one-off labour rights violations, their ability to report on civil society groups and their ability to directly hold local governments to account is often constrained. In the US, in contrast, although there is freedom of speech, due to media consolidation in recent years, local voices often go unheard. Whether in China or the US, the media doesn’t play the watchdog role that it could.

Finally, looking at the CCI and the historic populist movement that it’s a part of, it’s important to remember that established workers’ rights in the US only came about because of a determined, and powerful organized movement, and the important advances that have been made through struggle are consistently under pressure. Better working conditions and the establishment of unions require the hard work of many citizens coming together and organizing for change. It’s good to know that in both countries there are dedicated people and groups devoted to the cause.
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