I don’t think so. As happens with many moralisms, I think the boycott argument avoids one evil without considering the alternatives. I mean, what do the Chinese people get out of our boycott? Personally, I do not believe that the Chinese dictator class is going to change their minds about communism just because we don’t buy their products. I don’t think that’s how dictators think.
That, incidentally, is part of the Church’s argument against economic sanctions. The West loves to “punish” evil regimes—Cuba, Hussein’s Iraq, North Korea, etc.—by refusing, at a national level, to purchase their products. But Saddam Hussein fell from power only when the US military took him down; he didn’t liberalize his regime, despite a decade of sanctions. The regimes of Cuba and North Korea have withstood our economic sanctions for about fifty years now. Boycotts have not convinced these dictators to rethink the economic benefits of totalitarianism. The only result is to add our oppression to the dictator’s, and further starve the people of these countries. That is one reason the Catholic Church is always opposed to economic sanctions.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t care. I’m not denying that these are evil regimes. And I’m not denying that people would starve anyway, simply from the wickedness of the dictators. I’m just saying that boycotts don’t help.
(Incidentally, I’m also not saying that the Church’s political judgment is always spot-on. I think churchmen often take over-simplistic positions on complex political problems. I’m not accepting their argument here based on authority. But I happen to think they are right. I think twentieth-century history supports that judgment.)
It is true that there is incredible civic and political illiteracy, the fruit of ideological extremism and of the systematic blockage of information other than that provided by the government. But this situation can be overcome only by breaking out of internal isolation, which is worse than the external embargo. There is a need of more information, more openness, more exchange. We need a systematic and deep process of ethical, civic, and political education.
Vaclav Havel (I think) said that the key to the fall of European Communism was more and more people refusing to accept the lies of the regime. But how does that happen if the people are isolated? How does that happen, for example, if Americans refuse to do business with them
I propose that doing business with China is one of the most important ways we can contribute to the fall of totalitarianism there. Because trade is the main channel of contact. In a recent discussion of the China boycott, friends of ours pointed out that the regime puts on displays every time Americans come to visit. If you visit a Chinese factory, for example, they show you the great condition of the laborers. And it’s all a lie.
Fine. Make them put on more shows. Let the Chinese workers know that we are watching, and that we do not approve of the status quo. Let them know that the way things are in China is not the way they have to be, that things are different here. Give China a big financial incentive to have contact with Americans, and to learn English, and to let us wander around their country, and to have them come here. Engage. There is no other way to call their lie.
Trade is the main opportunity for us to talk to them, and to be there, and to see them. Trade is also the main excuse for missionaries, of various kinds. The underground Church needs all the support it can get. I think that Church would receive a lot more support if there were a lot more rich American businessman, and American journalists, and American Catholics in China. China needs secular missionaries too, to tell their students, and their businessmen, and even their ordinary people about free speech, and democracy, and the free market, where a person can get a decent salary for his wage. And we need reporters over there. We wouldn’t know to fight China’s coercive abortion policies if we didn’t have people on the ground there doing the research. Boycotts are not going to convince the totalitarians to let these people in. But business will.
I am proposing, in fact, that business is the bribe that gets us behind enemy gates. The magic of the market is that the bribe ends up savings us money.
ometimes, I think, we let moralism get the better of us. We so want to do the right thing (and it wouldn’t hurt if it were something we could hold over our neighbors) that we don’t think enough about actually helping people.
There’s an important point about Catholic moral thinking here. It’s easy to get caught up in rules, and to go looking for new rules, in order to be moral. Certainly there are rules—or, as the theologians say, “exceptionless moral norms.” There are things that are always wrong, like adultery, contraception, abortion, murder, theft, perjury, blasphemy. But that doesn’t mean being moral is all about rules. These things are exceptionlesss moral norms not because morality is about rules, but because there is never a case where good can come from them. Something like contraception is so inherently contradictory that it couldn’t ever be an act of love. But most of morality is not about rules, because at its heart, morality is about love. The question is, what is loving? Moralism means putting rules above love. Relativism is denying the principle of non-contradiction, denying the fact that there are some things that are inherently contradictory and thus always wrong. But love, looking to how you can actually help people instead of looking for moral purity, is not relativist. It feels to me—tell me if I’m wrong!—like part of the boycott mentality is putting moral purity and the search for new rules above consideration of how we can actually help people. Morality isn’t about avoiding evil—“I’m just not going to participate in that wicked Chinese economy.” Morality is about doing good.
I know boycotts sound very moral. But until I hear how boycotts will actually help the people, and until I hear of something that will empower the Chinese people more than active cross-cultural engagement, I am going to continue to buy Chinese products. And even believe it’s a moral act.
And hey, if you feel guilty about all the money you save, send some of it back to a charity in China! They need it!