In chess, a “stalemate” happens when the player whose turn it is to move is not in check but has no legal move. This ends the game in a draw. In the global economic chessboard, America and China are sparring over trade and monetary issues, with POTUS Trump recently threatening to impose a substantial tariff on Chinese steel. Perhaps these global superpowers are approaching a sort of economic stalemate, where both sides lose.
History teaches that tariffs can aggravate economic circumstances greatly (a trade war in 1929-30 contributed to the Great Depression). But globalization has woven the world’s economies so tightly together that the old rules might need to bend. China’s state-run economy is every bit as dependent on the laws of capitalism and economic growth as the United States, and our interconnection goes much deeper than the steel industry.
Chinese industry maximized profits by putting melamine in baby formula and in pet food. Chinese-manufactured sheetrock was contaminated with formaldehyde; Chinese toys with lead; Chinese toothpaste with antifreeze. The list of ethical problems in trade with China is gigantic. And now America will begin importing Chinese chicken.
China is the world’s leading producer of melamine. Melamine is added to inferior agriculture products (including animal feed) to fool government inspections (the melamine increases nitrogen, which is measured as an indicator of protein content). Some 20% of milk produced in China is watered down, and then spiked with melamine to cover it up.
Melamine has turned up in Chinese chickens, and in their eggs, at high rates. But that’s just one chemical, and the real threat with chickens from China is bird flu -- which is why the new law permits only the importation to the U.S. of cooked poultry. But how can we trust Chinese businesses to properly heat our food when they don’t hesitate to taint their own baby formula with a kidney-damaging chemical?
American consumers will have no way to know whether they are eating Chinese chicken -- it is illegal to label the products for country of origin, and processors are keeping silent about which brands might carry Chinese poultry.
The Chinese embrace security and structure over personal liberty. Tiananmen Square is well-known to Americans but not to most Chinese -- the government sterilizes the media of any references to the event. Most Chinese do not object to the government filtering the internet: they see Big Brother as the protector of stability.
It is odd that Chinese trade is so vital to American commerce that we food consumers are being reduced to the same level of awareness as Chinese citizens are in their country. Globalization seems to affect the rights afforded citizens: not of American freedoms and consumer rights being exported to third-world China, but of government domination and corporate malfeasance being imposed on Americans with the eager assistance of federal regulators and domestic business interests.
We know from wikileaks and other sources that our NSA monitors our computer, phone and bank records. Drones built with our tax dollars soar overhead and watch us. Facial recognition technology, and DNA and fingerprint banks, ensure the government can keep tabs on us. Soon every car will be equipped with a tracking device so that every mile it is driven will be recorded.
Are we Americans really so different from Chinese consumers -- cogs in a government machine, the levers of which are manipulated by corporate profiteers and their billionaire owners? How can we open the door to processed Chinese chicken while we lament the overproduction of Chinese steel?
China’s economy is faltering (as is our own). A country can only borrow so much. Property inflation can go only so high. As China struggles to maintain “economic growth” for its struggling millions, it has encountered bad debts, overproduction, corruption, inflation, and a myriad of other “capitalist” problems. Capital is now fleeing China (with huge investments in American ventures). A trade war would spiral our nations downward together, as we are dependent on Chinese capital and goods, just as they are dependent on providing them to us. This is our stalemate.
I think it would serve the American consumer better to slap a huge tariff on Chinese chickens rather than on Chinese steel. Steel doesn’t carry melamine, salmonella, or bird flu -- and we know it’s been cooked to a sufficient temperature to kill viruses. Food imports from China are increasing rapidly, while being subjected to less and less inspection: our game-ending stalemate may come sooner than we think.
Originally published with The Newport Daily Express, 8/11/2017