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The integrity of Chinese factories

| Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Recently, Notre Dame’s “China policy,” which launches a pilot program to manufacture its products in two Chinese factories, has caused a campus-wide debate. As an undergraduate student who doesn’t have much knowledge of labor laws, I don’t feel more qualified than any other student to comment on the policy itself. But still, as a Chinese national, I want to speak up and share my thoughts. It should be noted that this article only reflects my own opinions and doesn’t represent the position taken by any particular student body at Notre Dame.

Unlike most Notre Dame students I have talked to, I don’t yet have a firm stance on the China policy. Admittedly, laws that deny workers the freedom of association are fundamentally contradictory to Catholic social teaching (CST). One of the key themes of CST is the dignity of work. Workers have the right to form unions that protect their interests. In “Rerum Novarum,” Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, Pope Leo XIII explicitly points out, “The most important of all are workingmen’s unions, for these virtually include all the rest. … It were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.” Private societies such as workers’ unions are supported and cannot be prohibited by public authorities. According to the website of War on Want, a London-based anti-poverty charity, “There are approximately 150 million internal migrant workers in China who, because of their status, do not receive any state benefits or protection. They have to endure poor working conditions such as excessive and forced overtime, denial of social security rights and failure to provide employment contracts, as well as severe health risks.” Personally, I have also heard about stories of Chinese sweatshops where multiple workers under high pressure committed suicide. I agree that to support a system that violates workers’ rights, either directly or indirectly, is highly problematic.

However, when I ask people for the reasons why they are against the China policy on campus, most responses I get have nothing to do with Catholic social teaching. To be extremely honest here, for most Notre Dame students I have talked to, they are against it simply because they are against it. The logic behind their answers, if I have interpreted it right, is as follows: because I have been taught since kindergarten that Chinese factories are evil, I don’t like them. Because I don’t like them, I’m against the policy before actually knowing the most basic information of the factories Notre Dame chooses to cooperate with. This type of reasoning is not limited to the China policy. It is a human nature to judge — people tend to make quick and loud conclusions based on preexisting assumptions and without diving deeper into the issue. I find this aspect of human nature extremely troubling. Thus far, no one I talked to has made a specific argument against the policy. In other words, people rarely point out what is actually wrong with the policy: Is there a loophole in the due diligence process? Which part of the decision-making procedure needs improvement? Should we have worked with a different consulting agency in making the landscape assessment?  Actually, no one I talked to has read the full report attached in the email. And no one even remembers the names of the Chinese factories we are working with. For most people around me, working with these Chinese factories is wrong simply because it is wrong.

Verité is the University’s key partner in the policy. According to the Worker Participation Committee (WPC) report and Verité’s website (www.verite.org), it is a Massachusetts-based international non-profit with the mission of ensuring “that people around the world work under safe, fair and legal conditions.” According to WPC’s report, assessment of the factories were conducted by Verité, whose representatives visited the selected factories and collected online and on-site data that scored factories against 71 specific criteria. These criteria are listed, in English and Chinese, on pages 31 to 37 in the report. Let’s look at the two factories that passed the 71 standards: Huai’an Yuan Tong Headwear (ASI) and Wintax Caps, Shenzhen. Both, according to Bloomberg, are privately owned businesses nominated by existing Notre Dame licenses. Again, I am not an expert in this issue. But based on my reading of WPC’s report, neither Verité nor the Chinese factories directly represents the Chinese government. ASI and Wintax Caps are just two businesses, like tens of thousands of businesses in the US, which meet rigorous standards for integrity in treating their workers. Should their integrity be disvalued just because they are operating under the Chinese market? In an era where people do not judge each other by their races or nationalities, why are we still judging businesses that way?

“As a Chinese citizen, my view and opinion of China as a historical entity, a country and a political state have always fluctuated greatly throughout the years; there were times when I am definitely not proud of its decisions or actions. However, I feel that a lot of the phobia/contempt/condescending pity that some people I’ve encountered may harbor are more directed at China’s administration than its other facets — history, culture, language, arts, sciences, technology, philosophy, religion … and more importantly, its people and their unique values shaped by a turbulent yet rich past. I would like to point out that China is so much more than a manifestation of a political or ideological system that one supports or condemns.” This is a post on Facebook by my friend, and I cannot agree more. The quote might be a digression to some of you, but I think it is key to my understanding of this issue and a lot of other controversies related to China.

Again, this is only my own viewpoint, which, in many aspects, is immature and needs further refinement. However, I don’t think “it’s wrong because it’s wrong” is in any way a better argument than mine. I am still struggling to take a definite position on the China policy and want to develop a clearer stance through engaging in more conversations on campus and beyond. I genuinely hope that these conversations are those where people draw conclusions not based on preexisting biases, but on rational reasoning and a clear understanding of the background information.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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