On July 7th, The Economist reported that Vietnam and China reignited a wave of nasty signals toward each other over oil rights in the waters surrounding a string of archipelagos in the South China Sea.
Until June 21st, the Spratly and Paracel islands enjoyed a momentary calm after China and the Phillipines shouldered off an impending skirmish. But the calm did not last long. Vietnam re-asserted its claims to the islands through a parliamentary decree, to which China responded vehemently, claiming that Vietnam had violated its sovereignty.
In turn, the Chinese government immediately upgraded the status of the municipality that governs the Spratly and Paracel islands, giving it more jurisdictional leverage. Worrying mounted again when CNOOC, a state-directed oil firm, declared that it was opening bids for drilling in a zone not too far offshore from the islands to which Vietnam lays claim.
The two countries have a wary eye on each other, but despite the boundary scuffle, neither country seems too keen to break diplomacy and act aggressively. Hilary Clinton is scheduled to visit Phnom Penh in mid-July to discuss security in the region with Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister. China does not want to tarnish its image with an act of mischief. But under the surface, back at home, China’s newspaper Global Times is less restrained, saying Vietnam should be punished for its advance on China’s sovereignty.
Auret Van Heerden, leader of The Fair Labor Association, took a penetrating look at three Foxconn factories in China. He wanted to see whether or not the real picture of Chinese factory labor lives up to the standards confirmed by massive audits conducted by Apple, which contracts with Foxconn for producing your iPhones, your iTouches, and other cool gadgets.
Since he was 18, Van Heerden has dedicated himself to defending workers’ rights around the world. At Foxconn he facilitated commitments from workers, managers, owners and buyers to make a series of changes to labor conditions ranging from health and safety issues to representation issues. Van Heerden is 56 years old and feels a sense of achievement about his work. No one says he shouldn’t. He has figured out a separate audit method that brings to the surface fine detail that has been historically left out in previous audits. That is valuable for all parties.
What makes Van Heerden successful is his choice of how to get things done. Instead of entering the political arena and wrestling with policy-makers, he goes straight to the companies that own and manage labor. Right now, as a representative of 20 outfits that want to make progress on their labor practices, that’s where he spends the bulk of his time: he puts together committees of workers and conducts training programs in China, Thailand and Honduras. His solution is more practical and engaging, and less political.
When you are a young kid sitting around a crowded, crackling campfire in a small, lonely American town, it is easy to feel that the hot coals flickering out from underneath a pile of six or seven chunks of firewood is enough to ward off the darkness surrounding you.
But a flickering campfire is not enough for the Chinese people when it comes to showing off their optimism for the new year. From New York to Beijing some 1.3 billion Chinese citizens set off fireworks to usher in the Year of the Dragon, part of a celebration that will last fifteen days. For the past 5,000 years fireworks have been used to ward off evil spirits in China.
This is in fact the Year of the Water Dragon, a year that signals optimism and growth, but only swings around every 60 years on the Chinese lunar calendar. Optimism will be a tricky thing to share though. No matter the hopeful astrological signals and thundering growth, members of China’s Communist Party will have to find a way to make growth not the malaise, but instead make it the treatment for episodes of China’s swelling unrest, like this recent steelworker’s strike in Sichuan province.