Thursday, April 17, 2008

Yiwu's International Trade City

One of the most amazing parts of Bill McKibben's book Deep Economy is the chapter where he describes the International Trade City in Yiwu, China. It is currently two buildings, each the size of the Empire State Building "laid on its side and mated with a fleet of aircraft carriers" (page 178). (Three more such buildings are planned, believe it or not.)

Floor plan for toys and artificial flowers
Each floor or part of a floor is divided into a topic area -- "Suitcases and Bags," "Hardware Tools and Fittings" -- where factory owners display the stuff they make so international buyers can order a few thousand gross. From regular toys to electric toys to inflatable toys to plush toys... to Tourism Crafts "that could stock every gift shop on earth with light-up Virgin Marys, 'African' carvings, novelty bottle openers, refrigerator magnets by the millions" (p. 179). And of course, a whole floor that brings us our cheap Christmas.

(When I read this chapter, I couldn't help thinking about the House on the Rock, Wisconsin's famous home of kitsch and excess. When I visited it around 1990, I almost became physically ill. I definitely was made claustrophobic by it. So I have some idea what it probably feels like to be inside the International Trade City.)

But in some sense, this is the China we "know" from the media. Somebody has to be making and selling all the things we see that are labeled "Made in China," after all. But McKibben also includes some glimpses of the China we don't see:

By many estimates, 75,000 or or more riots and demonstrations take place [in China] every year against factories that seize peasant land or pollute common waters: a decade ago, there were about 10,000 such demonstrations a year... the New York Times correspondent Howard French reported on a...conflict in the village of Xinchang, 180 miles south of Shanghai. 'As many as 15,000 people massed here Sunday night and waged a pitched battle with the authorities, overturning police cars and throwing stones for hours, undeterred by thick clouds of tear gas.' They were protesting a chemical plant whose owners had seized local land and made farming all but impossible. (pp. 194-195)
Imagine if there were 75,000 -- or even 10,000 -- riots a year in the U.S. against corporate greed and environmental degradation. When a few thousand people threw rocks in Seattle during the WTO meeting in 1999, it made the news for weeks.

House left standing in the midst of multi-floor excavation
But the only activism we hear about in China, for the most part, is the story about the "nail house" -- the couple who wouldn't let their house be torn down for development, so that it was left standing in the midst of construction until the authorities finally removed them.

This is partly because of Chinese government repression of media, but that's not the only reason. "We" just aren't interested enough to find out.

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