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 vulnerable.

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 done.

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.



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