Pay no attention to these hypocrites
SCMP August 22, 2005
The Hong Kong People's Alliance on the WTO - it sounds very grand,
does it not? And about as accurate a description of Hong Kong people's
interests and wishes as national titles like the "Democratic
People's Republic of ..." The primary aim, according to its website, is to "derail [the
World Trade Organisation's] attempts to conclude agreements which aim
to further liberalise trade and investment".
Like most such "united-front" organisations,
it brings together an assortment of interests: church groups which
find it easier to sell claims to social justice than belief in their
gods; charities run by bureaucrats needing a constant flow of do-gooding
action to justify their existence; minor academics looking to get their
names in print; itinerant thugs looking for a good punch-up; and well-meaning
unions with little concept of the implications of their actions.
Individually they may represent legitimate interests, but put them
together with an agenda cooked up by rent-a-crowd consultants and rich-country
activists and you get the kind of all-purpose rabble which was witnessed
at a previous WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle.
Unfortunately their antics are to be played out on the streets of
Hong Kong when trade ministers meet here in December to conclude -
they hope - the so-called Doha Round of trade negotiations. I say "unfortunately" for
three reasons. First, because blind hostility to the WTO stands in
the way of actual improvements in the rules and conduct of trade. Second,
because it may give Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen more opportunities
to exercise his authoritarian instincts in a way that will prejudice
future protests in Hong Kong. Third, it will bring disrepute to organisations,
particularly those supporting migrant and mainland workers, which are
badly needed and generally do a good job in trying to protect the most
The hypocrisy of the alliance is indicated by the lead item on its
website: "Uphold the right of [the] peasant." It attacks
the subsidies paid to farmers in rich countries which undermine incomes
of farmers elsewhere. Fair enough. But the WTO is now close to an agreement
which would bar export subsidies and limit domestic farm support. The
alliance, however, wants to wreck the talks, which would ensure that
the subsidies continue unchecked.
Adding to the hypocrisy, the "shock troops" of the anti-WTO
demonstrations are to be Korean farmers long used to clashing with
riot police. They are the same highly subsidised, rich-country "peasants" the
alliance should be protesting against for keeping out the produce of
Thai rice farmers and Chinese garlic growers.
The alliance complains about global income imbalances but then is
against liberalising investment. How else did China prosper over the
past 20 years, except by liberalising trade and investment? Of course
there are many labour-rights abuses, which should be addressed, but
why cut off the nose to spite the face? The same applies to migrant
workers and women, whom the alliance purports to represent. Do they
bother to ask women working in Dongguan factories whether they were
forced to move there for modest wages rather than stay at home, spreading
nightsoil in Hunan ?
Migrant workers are exploited everywhere, but it is the very trade
and investment liberalisations which have made labour migration possible.
That the Philippines has to export such a huge number of often talented
people is partly because its domestic economy failed to take the same
advantage of global opportunities as Thailand, China or Malaysia have
If the alliance really wants to reduce global inequalities it should
be pressing for more liberalisation, particularly of migration. But
it does not have a positive agenda for action by the WTO which would
increase workers' opportunities and reduce abuses, because it is an
inchoate group of the well-meaning, the opportunists and NGO professionals.
In short, it should be ignored.