China: A Land of Opportunities But Not Without Obligations

News

Like many of you, I thrilled to see the human drama of the Olympics unfold on my TV screen. I was transfixed by the spectacle. Perhaps even more fascinating than the prowess of the world’s athletes were the background stories on life in China reported by NBC and other news organizations.

As Americans, and especially as part of the retail community, we have a particular interest in China. More of the products sold in U.S. stores come from China than any other foreign entity. When retailers look for expansion opportunities, China vaults to the forefront.

Yet, I wonder how many of our retail family, both retailers and suppliers, think about their possible role in resolving world crises, in making life better inside and outside China? How many take advantage of their interchange with Chinese officials and businessmen to voice concerns about official Chinese government policies and business practices?

Take Darfur, Sudan, for example. China has thwarted United Nations efforts to curtail the killings there. With Sudan supplying much of China’s oil needs, Beijing has turned a blind eye to the attacks on civilians in Darfur by agents of the Sudanese government. China reportedly has supplied military equipment to the Sudanese government despite a U.N. ban on such exports, a charge China denies.

I don’t mean to suggest that the retail industry should co-opt our State Department’s and the United Nations’ efforts to alter China’s behavior. I am not suggesting that any retailer or supplier sever relationships with China. But as citizens of the United States—of the world—we have leverage and the opportunity to influence Chinese policies. Just as President Bush attended the Olympics but used the occasion to remonstrate against Chinese policies, it is important and incumbent upon American retailers and suppliers to speak out when meeting with their Chinese counterparts. Negotiations should not be confined to price, quality and work-force issues alone. China’s actions both inside and outside its borders must be discussed, even at the risk of offending Chinese “sensibilities.”

China has been transformed not by military might but by an extraordinary economic surge fueled by Western appetites for less costly finished goods. Western countries and corporations, particularly retailers and their suppliers, cannot shirk their responsibility, their ability to influence Chinese actions, for it is equally true that by doing and saying nothing they are condoning Chinese activities in Darfur and elsewhere. We must convey to the Chinese that what they are doing is abhorrent to the entire American community and is not just our government posturing. It is through continuous commentary from ordinary citizens and corporations that China will come to understand the depth of our national commitment.

From the beginning of commerce in America during Colonial times, we were part of a global trading system. Today’s economy is inextricably entwined in global politics, events and media. For example, the diamond and jewelry industries acted swiftly to safeguard their images after the movie “Blood Diamond” came out in 2006.

The energy crisis has prompted a review of some foreign production, as domestic or closer-to-America manufacturing becomes more economically appealing. Now is an opportune time for American retailers and suppliers to express themselves tactfully but forcefully that, while they respect China’s autonomy, they—and their customers—require China to be a more responsible global citizen.