Wednesday, August 15, 2012

To boycott or not to boycott

Leaders of the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG) in the United States and their counterpart in Canada have started a campaign to boycott China-made products. Their objective is to transform this primarily civil society movement into a worldwide boycott in protest of China’s “illegal occupation of the Scarborough Shoal and its creeping invasion of the Kalayaan Island Group in the Spratly Islands” in the South China Sea.

The China boycott is essentially a private effort by overseas Filipinos and their allies abroad. It does not have the official support of the Philippine government, and U.S. citizens, including Filipino-Americans are barred by law from boycotting under the auspices of a foreign government’s foreign policy. The U.S. Export Administration Regulations forbid participation in or support of boycotts initiated by foreign governments, such as for example, the Arab League boycott of Israel.

Contrary to the USP4GG claim, their boycott is not consumerist in nature, one that is fueled by concerns such as exploitative labour, unlawful use of animal by-products, or any environmental, ethical or moral issues. It is tied to a political objective, a remonstration against China’s aggressive stance with respect to their territorial sovereignty claim over islands in the South China Sea.
Leaders of the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG) have called on
overseas Filipinos to boycott China-made products. Click link below to view
 "Boycott China,"

It is as if the boycott were successful, China would be forced to give up its claim or agree to bring the competing territorial claims to arbitration before an international tribunal or settlement by multilateral negotiations. It is not clear whether the objective of the boycott will strengthen the Philippines’ claim vis-à-vis China’s and the other claims. There are six nations currently locked in a maritime standoff as to who has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, land formations which are mostly submerged under water during high tide but are known to be rich with oil and natural gas reserves.

How is this boycott going to play out?

In a press conference in Manila last July, Ms. Loida Nicolas, one of the convenors of the USP4GG, made it clear that the boycott is a “purely consumer-led boycott” of all products made in China. These products would range from light to heavy consumer goods such as household utensils and appliances, clothing, school supplies, electrical and electronic products to motorbikes, agricultural and industrial tools, and construction materials. The only problem is identifying if these products are made in China since almost everything in the market is made or has parts or components manufactured or assembled in China. Apple products such as the iPad, personal computers, cell phones and even American cars have electronic components or parts made in China.

So, USP4GG is encouraging all would-be boycotters to read the product’s bar code in order to track its origin. They said that if the first 3 digits are 690, 691 or 692, the product is made in China, and it is from Taiwan if the first three numbers are 471. Whenever you go to an Asian supermart or grocery store to buy soy sauce or Chinese noodles, the trick is to look for the bar code before buying. Or when eating in a Chinese restaurant, ask the waiters if they use products made in China before ordering your meal. If you happen to buy a signature brand of clothing that is made in China, then that creates a bigger problem because it’s not easy to sacrifice a preference for a specific brand in favour of expressing a patriotic sentiment.

Is this boycott going to be successful?

The leaders of the USP4GG say it will, but that’s too self-serving to believe. Even if 200 million Americans join the boycott which is next to impossible. They point to Vietnam’s victory against the powerful U.S. military during the Vietnam War, a David versus Goliath scenario they said. But that was not a boycott, it was a war for national liberation by the Vietnamese people. Still, some would invoke Gandhi’s boycott of British trade. Again, that was during India’s war of independence and not a consumerist reaction.

This type of consumer boycott that the USP4GG has started is not easy to wage since it covers so many products. It also creates the other problem of finding an alternative which would likely be very difficult because China-made products have saturated the market. These products, while made in China, are not necessarily China’s. They are products manufactured for a specific brand, model or foreign company using Chinese labour and resources. It is not like boycotting Nestle products, McDonald’s, KFC Chicken, or refraining to buy from Wal-Mart. This is not similar to the United Farm Workers boycott of table grapes in the 1960s or the boycott of tuna to help save dolphins in the 1990s.

Generally, this type of boycott has a very short life span and not effective in the long term. If successful, which is doubtful, it would hurt the Chinese labour population since the boycott would take away their jobs and even impoverish them. Likewise, the boycott also deprives millions of consumers of cheap products to buy. As USP4GG cannot ask the U.S. and Philippine governments to sanction the boycott, it becomes toothless and ineffective. On the other hand, if the boycott is endorsed by both governments, it would be like declaring war against China and it is not politically sensible to disrupt regional or world peace just for the sake of boycotting “toyo” or “pancit canton,” or perhaps, an iPad with electronic components made in China.

This boycott targets a list of products that is probably too long for most consumers to remember. And for a cause that is not quite clear and difficult to put across in a few understandable words.

How is boycotting China-made products linked to the validity of the Philippines’ claim for sovereignty over land formations in the South China Sea? There are other claimants but why are they not also boycotting?

USP4GG claims that China has illegally occupied the Scarborough Shoal and invaded the Kalayaan group of islands in the Spratlys. With the exception of Brunei, isn’t this what all the claimant countries have done – occupy their territories in order to establish de facto settlement? Isn’t the fact that, except for Brunei, all the competing countries have stationed troops in the South China Sea? Why then would a boycott of China-made goods be a better alternative to pursuing a military war or peaceful negotiations?

Most successful boycotts have a highly emotive and achievable cause. Take for example, dolphins killed by tuna fishermen, support “breasts, not dictators” campaigns against Triumph bras manufactured in Burmese factories, or a campaign plea for tourists not to visit a certain country. This is not to say that a boycott is only worth supporting because it’s easy to explain or PR-friendly. Many consumer boycotts don’t have a defined goal, but it is always worth investigating any boycott if it’s really the best option for voicing your concerns.

No country, including the Philippines, would dare start a war without resorting to the machinery of adjustment set up in treaties or international agreements, especially if the outcome would impact on the entire region or perhaps the whole world. Boycott advocates have always argued that if only all nations would embargo trade, loans and other intercourse with an offending nation, that nation would quickly feel the weight of disapproval and correct its ways. But that doesn’t necessarily happen even in these modern times. Consider for example the ongoing U.S. Cuban trade embargo or several U.N. sanctions against countries like Iraq and Iran. Generally speaking, economic sanctions such as boycotts are ineffective substitute for military measures or a peaceful determination of disputes.

There is little question of guilt of each of the claimant countries in the South China Sea conflict. It is unlikely that we shall ever have a less tangled case in the region, especially when five out of the six competing countries have stationed their troops in the disputed sea and fortified their settlements. It doesn’t matter if there is a big disparity in the military superiority of one country against the others. No aggression ever rises without provocation and none without some veil of reasoning that is plausible enough to deceive the opinion of the claimant-countries in the region. It would not be absurd to suppose that a boycott would lead to a military confrontation, or that it is essentially not different from other kinds of war activity.

Besides, this boycott is painting the Philippines as a hypocritical nation. Economic and trade partnerships between Beijing and Manila have developed rapidly in recent years making China as the Philippines third largest trading partner. After visiting China in 2011, President Benigno Aquino III announced nearly US$13 billion worth of Chinese investments in the Philippines, a result of his various meetings with Chinese businessmen over the course of his visit.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. Click link below to view "President
Aquino's arrival speech after state visit to the People's Republic of China - 2011,"

This was President Aquino’s message after his visit to Beijing: “We succeeded in putting across the message we want to bring: the door of the Philippines is open to investments from China. With our economic managers, we showed them the business opportunities in the Philippines. In agriculture, infrastructure, energy, tourism, the two governments saw the good results of Chinese continuing to look for investment opportunities.”

President Aquino has even declared 2012 and 2013 as the "Philippines-China Years of Friendly Exchanges." How can a boycott of China-made products be seen as promoting friendly vibes between the two countries?

Instead of a boycott, it would be better for overseas Pinoys to exert more pressure on the United States, Canada and other foreign nations to bring the weight of their governments on the Chinese so that they would agree to a multilateral negotiation of the South China Sea dispute. Among member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Malaysian government last Monday, August 13, urged ASEAN countries to settle first their overlapping claims in the South China Sea before bringing them up with Beijing.

If the ASEAN can present a more united and stronger front against an increasingly assertive China, this would be a positive step in negotiating with China. On its part, China has always preferred a bilateral settlement of the dispute. A unified ASEAN stand of the member-countries which have competing claims in the South China Sea is a stronger bargaining suit, instead of individual countries negotiating separately with China.

This is what Filipinos abroad, those in the United States and in Canada, should try to advocate instead of boycotting China-made products. Anti-Chinese prejudice has permeated our culture and it has survived throughout our history. Filipinos have always been discriminated because of their geographical distance from the Asian mainland. A China boycott will only fuel this resentment of the Chinese, and it may pose as a potential barrier to a quick negotiated settlement of the South China Sea conflict.

During his trip to China, President Aquino also visited Hongjian village in Fujian, where his ancestors came from, and where his late mother, former President Cory Aquino had planted a tree 23 years ago. In Fujian, Aquino said: “We have a saying that those who don't know where they came from, won't arrive at where they are going, so I made it a point to visit and give thanks to my relatives in Fujian.”

The USP4GG leaders and followers overseas should pause for a second, and for one deep moment, consider the words of the leader they look up to.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's reasonless and unavailing to boycott Chinese-made goods by scanning barcodes on products. In my opinion, China is a nation that pursues peace, the Chinese did not bully Filipinos, Filipinos also not got to unfair treatment in China. About territorial disputes between the two countries each have their own position. The Philippines should not continue to provoke China, and create conflicts between two countries. Hope both sides can negotiate with a peaceful way.