SHENZEN, CHINA — Shenzen, China -- On the day President Clinton renewed most-favored-nation trading status for China, I happened to be taking the 40-minute ride on the air-conditioned, fast transit train from downtown Hong Kong to this startling new city of almost 1 million people, many of them working 15 hours a day making athletic shoes and such for big American feet.
This is one version of the great Asian success story: Corporations from the United States and the rest of the developed world are setting up sweatshops in poorer countries to manufacture everything from clothing to compact-disc players, using the modern "slave" labor of village folk and their children working under the economic lash of greedy bosses and greedier foreign investors.
All of the above is true in many factories here and in other East Asian boom cities. The workers here, whose products may be in your home with labels from Nike or Walt Disney or Pierre Cardin, are paid about $35 a month. They are allowed to sleep in the factories or in company dormitories and are fed three times a day, paying the company back $7 a month for the food. If they complain, they're fired, but few do. Thousands more like them desperately want those jobs; money sent back to villages is enough, over time, to buy what most Chinese want, color televisions and bicycles.
I had plenty of company on the train, including American investment bankers checking on the uses (and profits) of their clients' money. Like me, many of them had the buffet ($20) in the revolving restaurant on the 31st floor of the Shenzen Shangri-La. The view is spectacular, green hills on the Hong Kong side of the barbed-wire border and a mix of skyscrapers, tin-roof shacks and unmarked factory buildings on the China side.
I first saw this place in 1981, a year after it was officially declared the "Shenzen Spe- It's the Wild East, as Chinese coolies built the railroads to tame America's Wild West.
cial Economic Zone" -- a designation meaning, roughly, no minimum wages, no taxes, no safety regulations. That was before there was a Shangri-La or a commuter train for money managers.
The view from the ground then was paddies and a dozen or so construction cranes. There are still cranes, but taxes and regulations have been low enough and lax enough to attract manufacturing from all over the world, most especially from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The standard bribe rate (divided among officials who call themselves communists), which once was just the gift of an air conditioner, is now 2 percent of gross production.
There was a fire in a toy factory last year, killing 84 workers, most of them trying to escape through barred windows. Doors and windows are locked in these parts to prevent theft by the workers.
It's the Wild East. In fact, the people inside are probably related to the Chinese coolies who built the Union Pacific Railroad to tame America's Wild West. Now we, refined and sensitive do-gooders, are appalled by such working conditions. One reaction is a new "workers rights" movement: The United States and others have proposed a global minimum wage as part of international trade agreements; the Australian Council of Trade Unions wants an international "Labor Bill of Rights."
Asian reaction to this new wave of missionary advice from the West has been interesting, to say the least.
First, there was "tell them what they want to hear." China proposed its own minimum wages, region by region, 10 cents an hour in Shanghai, 17 cents in Shenzen. Thailand, where 13-year-olds can work legally and where 188 people died behind closed doors in a textile-factory fire last year, said it would consider new child-labor laws and proclaimed 1994 as "The Year of Work Safety."
Then, one by one, Asian political leaders stood up and said that the West in general and the United States in particular should mind its own business. Or, in this case, you might say not mind our own business. The attack on "workers rights" was led by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who said the proposals amounted to "thinly disguised protectionism."
Mr. Mahathir's argument, picked up in China, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, was simply that the West had every advantage in global manufacturing competition except one -- cheap labor. And now, he said, crafty Occidentals were trying to drive up labor costs in the East.
In Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long said: "They [developed countries] seek reasons which can be dressed up and made to appear legitimate to hinder trade and restrict access to their markets." Mr. Mahathir's deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, put it this way last week: "We reject the condescending attitude of outsiders." Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's former prime minister, even said that loose American talk about human rights was the real cause of recent violent worker demonstrations in Indonesia.
Most of that talk is absurd. Americans are not against cheap labor unless it's their own. We love the fact that sweatshops are producing goodies, especially electronic ones, that we could not otherwise afford. It's just that we like to tell other people how to live.
We were comfortable, for almost a century, pushing the Bible and opium at the same time in China. What's happening now is about the same. Not only do we live high economically on the sweat and pain of other peoples, we can also gain spiritually by saying, "Tsk, tsk! Isn't that awful!"
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.