WASHINGTON — As China and the U.S. traded accusations over a downed American spy plane, Steven Mosher, president of Population Research International, called for a boycott of goods made in China.
Some human-rights advocates disagree with that strategy but everyone can be certain of one thing: Such a boycott would be difficult, particularly for parents.
G.I. Joe, “a real American hero,” had his patriotic plastic form molded in the People's Republic of China. So did the Trumpet-Playing Cookie Monster from Mattel, an enormous purple plush frog from Animal Alley, scores of cute stuffed animals, and even the Big Mouth Billy Bass.
But all-pervasive Chinese goods should nonetheless be skipped, said renowned dissident Harry Wu. He charged that the Chinese laogai prison system, which opponents compare to the Soviet gulag, uses “reform through labor” to control the Chinese people while netting a profit for the Communist government.
Wu acknowledged that most Chinese products were not made with forced labor — but there is no way to tell which. “Many toys, electronic components, garments, shoes and Christmas decorations are processed by forced labor in China,” he said.
Wu was imprisoned in the laogai for 19 years in the 1960s and 1970s, for criticizing the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. After his release, he returned to the laogai in disguise throughout the 1990s to videotape and document the prisons’ abuses.
There he saw a prisoner forced to climb, naked, into a vat of toxic chemicals and stir them with his body. Other prisoners who failed to meet their production quotas were tortured, denied food, or placed in solitary confinement.
A boycott should not focus solely on the laogai, said Wu, but on all of China's human rights abuses. “This government can use the money to strengthen their power. The money supports the police departments,” he said.
While Russo suggested shopping in larger stores, which offer more choices, Bruce Grossan, a physicist living in Berkeley, Calif., recommended that shoppers make their boycotts public.
“Without being rude, without being unpleasant, let people know what you're doing,” he said. “Let people in the stores know. Let the Chinese government know.”
He knew of several stores that had changed their buying policies because customers requested products not made in China, said Grossan. “As people insist on and ask for non Chinese products merchants have to respond,” he said.
Parents face the added obstacle of a child's desire for the perfect toy — a Super Soaker, a Pokèmon doll, a Scrabble set. All are made in China.
Parents might substitute Legos, Connect Four, or a Hula Hoop, which were made elsewhere.
But, in some cases, there's no easy method for sorting out products. Many Pressman games, Play-Doh, and Crayola products were made elsewhere, but each brand also offers Chinese goods. Most Hot Wheels cars come from China, but it has a line of smaller, 99-cent cars which were mostly made elsewhere.
Each car has its country of origin engraved on its underside.
Toys and games with many small parts, especially plastic parts, are likely to use components from China. Many board games, for example, are made in the U.S. but packaged with dice from China. Companies are required to list this information on the box.
Many advocates of greater freedom in China disagree with Wu that a boycott is appropriate. William McGurn, chief editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, noted, “I understand the sentiment, but boycotts and sanctions almost never work. They haven't worked in Iraq.”
He argued, “When you deprive the outside world from coming in, you inadvertently strengthen the government. You prop up a government monopoly. Trade has been the most positive influence on China.” He emphasized that China's economy is not “based on prison labor.”
“Look at the worst places for human rights,” McGurn said. “They're not the places linked to the world economically; they're the places cut off from the world economically.”
But Lawrence Uzzell, president of the religious-freedom monitoring group the Keston Institute, told the Yale Free Press in January, “With China, we in the free-market movement learned an unpleasant lesson.”
Uzzell said, “Fifteen to 20 years ago, I was optimistic about progress in China through increased open trade. But that has manifestly not happened.”
“China is definitely freer in the economic realm,” he said, “but is clearly still repressive in some fundamental areas such as political, journalistic, and religious freedom. The crackdown on religious minorities has gotten worse since the early 1990s, and will continue to do so. It is definitely more hostile to the press now than it was in the '80s.”
Meanwhile, this Sunday, one irony may spur Catholics to boycott: Most of the plastic Easter eggs sold in American stores were made in a country where priests have been jailed for saying Mass.