Reaction to Chinese migrants exposes globalization's double-standard

September 1, 1999

Nothing lays bare more clearly the contradictions of free-market globalization than the hysterical and often ugly reaction to the arrival of the Chinese migrant ships on BC's coast.

Perhaps the recent Chinese arrivals are genuine convention refugees (a definite possibility given China's human rights record), or perhaps they are mainly economic refugees. Only due process and a proper refugee board hearing will tell. In either case, the nasty "send-them-back" reaction is unwarranted and based on a troubling lack of understanding about global migration and the world economy.

It is interesting indeed that many of the same people who push for the free movement of goods, services, investment and business professionals react with outrage and xenophobia at the movement of workers. This double-standard represents the height of hypocrisy.

It is entirely predictable and understandable that people follow money. They always have. More than anything, this is the history of immigration. It's what brought most of us here.

Canada has sent numerous Team Canada missions to Asia. One of the goals of these missions is to help Canadian corporations set up shop in the free trade export processing zones of Asia -- industrial parks and cities where workers come cheap, taxes are virtually non-existent, and labour and environmental regulations go unenforced. It's wild-west capitalism, where national borders are already passe for all but the workers.

This arrangement serves First World companies well, but it is premised on the exploitation of cheap Asian labour. Human rights groups estimate that a living wage in China would be 87 cents an hour. Yet according to a study last year by the U.S.-based National Labour Committee, WalMart, Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, Esprit, Liz Claiborne, K-Mart, Nike, Adidas and others, through their sub-contractors, pay a mere fraction of this, some as low as 13 cents an hour. The profits flow back to First World shareholders. And now people from the Third World are following the money.

The country with more export processing zones than any other is China. By conservative estimates, there are 18 million people working in 124 export zones. One of the first of these was established in 1980 in Xiamen in Fujian Province, the source of the recent migrant boats. More recently China has "opened" many of its coastal cities, including Fuzhou, the Fujian provincial capital, to foreign investment with various export incentives.

We cannot, in good conscience, continue to reap the rewards of this unjust system in the form of cheap goods from China, and then react with horror when the inevitable flow of people follows. Desperate economic, social and political circumstances lead people to take desperate actions -- and a month at sea on a rickety boat is certainly that.

Some are spinning a line that Canada's alleged lax immigration laws make us a global sucker -- a target for many of the world's migrants. This is an absurd proposition. Our global economic order, in which both corporate profits and debt interest payments flow to rich industrialized countries (far outstripping the meagre level of foreign aid going to Third World countries), keeps billions impoverished and has resulted in millions upon millions of economic refugees. Yet the vast majority of these global migrants are being absorbed, not by wealthy countries, but by the poorest countries least able to afford the costs and with the bleakest economic prospects.

There are, according to UN sources, at least 100 million people on the move around the world. Of these, Canada accepted fewer than 200,000 immigrants and about 25,000 thousand refugees last year, and our acceptance rate has been declining in recent years.

Thus far, the Chinese migrant boats have carried to BC a mere 600 or so people -- a fraction of Canada's small immigration and refugee quota, and a drop in the global bucket. We can afford to treat these people with respect and grant them due process.

Globalization has another effect -- it understandably heightens Canadians' sense of economic insecurity. But responding to this growing anxiety with intolerance is misplaced. Ultimately, the migrant boats are the inevitable social fall-out of free market globalization. And until we have a global economic order based on justice and a great deal more social and economic equality, more boats (and planes) will come. We can either respond with higher gates, a beefed-up military and other obstructive and hypocritical measures, or we can push for a new international system that stops draining the Third World of its resources and capital.