The issues that fueled the anti-globalization movement at the Battle of Seattle have simply not gone away. A revival movement surfaced recently. Call it the Battle of Hong Kong.
It was back in 1999 that delegates to a World Trade Organization summit , hosted in the lovely but unsuspecting Northwestern American city of Seattle , were awakened to a new reality of world politics. Globalization, however defined, was anything but universally popular.
It still isn’t.
The Battle of Hong Kong was fueled, mainly, by profound insecurity. Consider the pathos of the Korean farmers. Hundreds bravely stormed barricades or swam valiantly through icy Victoria Harbor waters to try to breach the security barriers around the glamorous convention building hosting the latest World Trade Organization minister confab. Many hundreds were arrested. Compassionately, the national government in Seoul immediately dispatched a special envoy to seek their release. Thoughtfully, the Hong Kong government is seeking to do just that as soon as possible.
Like farmers in France and elsewhere, many Koreans are not convinced that this globalization thing is, at the end of the day, such a good thing for them. Open markets and globalization means local job-closings to them.
In fact, the way they see it, unaccountable institutions such as the World Trade Organization threaten their very ability to survive. In Korea now, they are frightened over efforts to pry open their domestic rice market to outside competition. Neither their national government nor the institutions of the worldwide globalization movement seems to possess the capacity to convince them otherwise.
Will the Korean farmers get what they want? They and like-minded disenfranchised allies around the world believe that under the globalization movement, they have everything to lose, so they will riot as wantonly as they can because, paradoxically, at the same time they feel they have nothing to lose.
One hitch in the logic of protests against globalization, however, is that the target of their ire is not actually an organized movement. It is not a democracy movement or an environmental movement or even a conspiracy of multinational corporations. It is more like the weather , more like a global correlation of economic and technological forces that no one can control, but that seems to be leaning in directions that, inevitably, will produce a new class of winners and losers. The Korean and French farmers have made their own calculations as to which side of that equation they will wind up.
That kind of calculation of self-preservation , and thus preference for the status quo over blinding change , will continue to fuel riots and perhaps prompt future WTO meetings to be held in the relative isolation of a place like the South Pole, with only the penguins around to protest, until either the equity issue is addressed or the pace of globalization slows down enough to allay fears.
Shortly after the 1999 Seattle debacle, a still-somewhat dazed President Clinton explained to me that these riots were only partly instigated by professional and/or amateur anarchists and thrill-seekers. Chief executive officers and political leaders who would blame the turmoil on some sort of anarchist conspiracy would be missing the point.
He added that the rioting would continue, probably for years to come, and prove politically significant because the professional protagonists would in fact ally themselves with real people who had real issues that were not being addressed. Clinton’s point now seems prescient.
Globalization is clearly, in fact, increasing overall global wealth, but it appears that the new wealth is not being distributed equitably enough. Until this issue is further understood, and until public policies takes this into account (by, for example, figuring out how rice farmers will survive market openings), the protests will persist, egged on or not by the professionals and the anarchists.
Governments, corporations and indeed the news media need to be much more sensitive to this large issue, and they must mass-communicate the complexity of the globalization process in a way that more people can understand its implications. Those who are left out as history moves forward in its brutal and determined course are not going to disappear for anyone’s convenience.
That’s what the Battle of Hong Kong showed.
Tom Plate is a UCLA professor, former editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.