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Changing the world with international trade

The View From Here

We were sitting in Mazzio’s in Clinton a few Saturdays ago. The Four-Year-Old passed me her necklace — apparently, it was getting in the way as she dunked cheesey breadsticks into marinara sauce.

The necklace was what you’d expect a little girl who spends her weekdays at a church daycare to be wearing: small cross with “Jesus Y’s You” stenciled onto one side.

It had a strange feel. That strange plastic feel that is quite familiar. So, before putting it aside, I turned the cross over and was not surprised to find what I expected: “China,” in all caps and formed into the plastic.

That feel. You know it. Cheap plastic from China. And you probably see the irony: Christian cross. Made in China, a nation striving to be an economic and military superpower and maintain a totalitarian regime where dissent — political and religious — is met with government interference, harassment and repression.

The People’s Republic of China poses as many problems as it does opportunities.

With an official population of just under 1.3 billion, according to the U.S. Department of State, a GDP in 2000 of $1.1 trillion, an annual per capita GDP of $838 and membership in the World Trade Organization, U.S. companies cannot ignore the new markets available in China. And many Americans have been doing business there for years. But human rights abuses, religious intolerance, Taiwan and military threats, as well as concerns about copyright violations, intellectual property abuse and reverse engineering, complicate the economic possibilities.

Balancing the opportunities with the opposition is a daunting task, but considering all of the possibilities, doing business with China is probably the only way we’ll ever see change in its authoritarian leadership.

Business, my friends, will set you free.

Call me a disciple of The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whose fervent advocacy of globalization is almost religious. His thesis in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” is simple: Globalization is not just phenomenon and not just a passing trend. It is the international system that replaced the Cold War system. Globalization is the integration of capital, technology, and information across national borders, in a way that is creating a single global market and, to some degree, a global village.

After lunch last week at a Chinese restaurant in Jackson, my friend Bill Scaggs, who directs the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Mississippi, reminded me of Friedman’s “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” which, he writes, “…was a bolt out of the blue that must have hit somewhere between the McDonald’s in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the McDonald’s in Tahrir Square in Cairo and the McDonald’s off Zion Square in Jerusalem. And it was this:

“No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.”

Friedman’s rationale is that once “…a country reaches the level of economic development where it has a middle class big enough to support a McDonald’s network, it becomes a McDonald’s country. And people in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars anymore, they prefer to wait in line for burgers.”

McDonald’s, which has become a symbol for the good and bad of globalization and a frequent target of anti-globalization protesters, is the perfect example of how capitalism works and can spread around the world. And despite the critics, McDonald’s — and good ol’ American capitalism — can make a difference — a positive difference.

In a world that’s been turned upside down once again, will international trade and business deals make a difference in China? Or the Middle East? Or Africa?

I think so. And I hope that one day my daughter’s cheap, plastic, made-in-China Christian cross won’t seem so ironic.

Contact MBJ editor Jim Laird at jlaird@msbusiness.com.

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