Thursday, June 09, 2005

Why nanobusiness as usual with China?


Take a look at the story below and tell me whether you're uncomfortable with nanotech companies worldwide doing business in China. A lot of business. In fact, China is truly the land of opportunity for nanotech companies, where their products are likely to reach consumers sooner -- from nanocatalysts for fuel to drug delivery devices.

This is not a rhetorical question. I've had very mixed feelings on this issue since 1989, when I found myself yelling at the TV in outrage as I watched Brent Scowcroft toasting the Chinese leadership so soon after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

And the arguments over which dictatorial regimes to punish with economic sanctions are too wrapped up in U.S. politics to make any kind of sense. Liberals credit sanctions for toppling apartheid in South Africa, yet blame sanctions for impoverishing Cuba. Business-friendly conservatives argue in almost all cases that economic engagement with the people living under dictatorships is the surest way to change a society from within -- that is, unless we're talking about Cuba.

Even though it's a question that's broader than our own nano world, I still think this issue should be discussed among nanotechnology's other "societal and ethical implications."

China defector can stay - Australia minister (Reuters)

    "A senior Australian minister said on Thursday that a Chinese diplomatic defector pleading for political asylum in Australia is in no danger of being sent home.

    Chen Yonglin, a 37-year-old political affairs consul at China's Sydney consulate, has told Australian authorities he fears for his family's safety and would rather die than return to China.

    'Mr Chen is in Australia, he is being dealt with in accordance with the ordinary process of Australian immigration law and he is at no risk of being sent back to China,' Health Minister Tony Abbott, a close ally of Prime Minister John Howard, told reporters.

    Howard himself tried to calm concerns that Chen's fate might be influenced by Canberra's booming trade and economic ties with Beijing.

    'Let me simply say that, just as in relation to the U.S., we have steadfastly refused to mix trade with politics and strategy and national security -- so it is in relation to China, and I'm sure that our Chinese friends will know that,' Howard told a business lunch in Sydney.

    China, which is Australia's third-largest trading partner with annual trade worth almost A$29 billion (more than $22 billion), is in talks with Canberra on a free trade deal and a separate pact to import Australian uranium." More here

Backgrounder
People-to-People's State Partnership
'Dual-use' nano vs. export controls
China's Great NanoLeap Forward
Sleeping nanogiant stirs
U.S. to China: Let's share power
NanoSinoPhobia
China, garment workers and nanotechnology

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Howard, I generally like your blog a lot. But I cannot agree with you on this point.

Of course, China is not a perfect country, politically, but neither is our courtry. Recall all the horrible things happened in the prisons in Bagdad. Does that mean that our government should not promote nanotechnology and nanobusiness?

I have been to China couple of times, and I think it is great country. Too many negative things about China shown on TV are simply not true, or at least not the full story. Maybe you should have a trip to China some time in the future.

Howard Lovy said...

Well, I've been asked many times to embark on a slow boat over there. I'd love to visit. Like I said, I was not asking a rhetorical question, and my mind is not made up on this issue. It's complicated, and I wanted to spur some debate on it. Thanks for generally liking my blog, though!

Anonymous said...

I have been uncomfortable for some time with trade with Mainland China of any kind.

It kind of sticks in your memory when the Tiananmen Square massacre is the first thing you see on the TV when you arrive at the motel for your honeymoon.

Mr. Smith

Anonymous said...

Boycotts are always a bit tricky. Currently, there are various groups pushing boycotts against Israel, Cuba, China, and a variety of other nations and organizations.

Boycotts were originally more about shaming (as opposed to impoverishing) the target. But, unfortunately, some have no shame, and pay attention only to the bottom line.

Do I think we should boycott China? Yes. Cuba? No. Israel? No.

Under current circumstances, if I were a foreigner, would I boycott the U.S.? Absolutely.

It all depends on your politics. . . . .

lex gibson said...

Howard, I generally like your blog, a lot but...

Of course, China is not a perfect country, politically, but...

While I understand that you are interested in having a discussion on the societal implications of nanotech, you should have known that you're opening your blog up to cringeworthy comparisons between a democratic society and a nation living firmly under the boot of a totalitarian government.

That said, I think that the surest way to improve the lot of the people of China is by improving their economic conditions, and the surest way to accomplish that is through free trade.

Another point in favor of doing nanotech business in China is that they're unlikely to stifle innovation with excessive regulation (corruption is another matter). Look no further than the luddites, er, I mean "progress averse gentlemen" manning the president's council on bioethics to see why this is a concern.

The mere fact that business can be done in China, if regulations were to become too stifling here, will likely be enough to keep the regulations from becoming too stifling.

All the same, I'm planning on at least a few classes in Mandarin along with the science coursework, just in case.

Anonymous said...

Hasn't the US President identified all the evil regimes? I don't remember China being on that list. Instead the US regime (oops I meant, Administration) has created stronger bi-lateral trade agreements with China. If evil regimes are the guideline for doing business, I am sure there a number of countries that could be added to this list. Any suggestions on whose we might add?

Howard Lovy said...

Well, I rarely pay much attention to what the president says is the bad guy of the year because such distinctions are never consistent and always political. I like to make up my own mind based on what I personally think is right or wrong. Unless I'm missing something, imprisoning and torturing political or religious dissenters -- and threatening their families -- is wrong, right?

Our country's political and business leaders have decided that the lure of commerce is more important than even a symbolic stand against totalitarian abuse. My question to the nanotech business community is whether you're OK with this. If nanotech is the special, new, powerful technology that is claimed, do the companies developing the technology have a special responsibility to make sure it's not put to use by nations who could turn it against their own citizens or other nations?

Again, I really don't care what the political leaders say. I always assume I'm being lied to by any U.S. administration. In our society, it's business interests that rule. So, what code of ethics rules the nanotech "business?"

Anonymous said...

"Business ethics" and "military intelligence" or so goes the joke. I believe getting companies in any business area just to follow the law is challenge enough. And for the moment, business with China is legal under certain guidelines.

So, granted you don't abide what "politicians" say about other governments, neither do I. So, I put the question to you, if the "imprisioning and torturing of political and religous dissenters and threatening their families" is your guideline, should anyone be doing business with US or Israel?

Anonymous said...

Can you really use the word ethics and business in the same sentence?

I guess using the word code at the same time is the qualifier. The problem is not everyone uses the same cypher key and thus you get confusion as to what ethics to follow (See above for the same problem in the sciences)

One thing that I find screamingly funny (in a sad way) is the fact that GM is running commercials for their "Employee Discount Program" while they are divesting themselves of employees. Business ethics and logic at its best.

As for the current US administration science policy, this too shall pass. The question is what will be left to salvage.

Back to the original question: Should we trade nanotechnology with China? The answer is yes and no. The problem is that you cannot control the use of the technology once you have handed it to the enduser. I'm leary about some of the things that we are giving to our own government.

Mr. Smith

Howard Lovy said...

Why does the choice need to be "boycott or no boycott," "sanctions or no sanctions?" Are there more subtle ways the business community can use its influence? Can there be any kind of voluntary guidelines adopted by the nanotech community doing business abroad? A set of rules regarding how to do business with countries that have questionable human rights records? I honestly do not know. But I do know that the business community is more likely to make an impact on the ground than any political pronouncements from on high. What can be done on the ground when it comes time to make a deal?

Regarding the U.S. and Israel, I've been disussing these issues all my adult life, so I know when I'm being bated. If it did not go beyond the mission of this blog I'd likely respond (If I had all the time in the world to do nothing but blog, I'd launch a separate one on Mideast issues). I'll simply say this: If you believe that Israel and the United States are both totalitarian states on the level of China, then you go right ahead and boycott. Follow your conscience. However, if this were such a state, this blog would likely have been shut down long ago, and I would have quietly "disappeared."

Anonymous said...

I see the guideline is now "totalitarians states on the level of China." Not quite the same as "imprisoning and torturing political or religious dissenters -- and threatening their families."

Okay, I'll go by your new guideline. Could you elaborate on what you mean by the "level of China". Are we talking about numbers of those tortured and/or killed? Or, is there some other benchmark for this "level"?

But I don't want to bate you anymore, I simply wanted to know if there was standard for those we boycott and those we don't--I am not sure I am getting more clarity, but rather just shifting definitions.

Tangential from this area of the debate is that China will go along quite nicely with or without US involvment in their commercial trade of nanotechnologies and nano-enabled products. Do we really want to be left out of the opportunities that are there based on a somewhat vaguely outlined ethical standard of those we should do business and those we shouldn't?

Howard Lovy said...

I never proposed any specific ethical guidelines. I was asking the question of the nanotech business community. So, now I know what yours are: None. Which nanotech business do you represent?

Anonymous said...

No ethical standards, moi?! Now who is baiting whom? Is my question so illegitimate that you need to regress to ad hominem attacks?

As I asked at the beginning of my thread into this, what other countries should we add to the list. You have issues with China, and I am sure they are all legitimate ones. But it seems to me we are getting into very dangerous territory marking off some countries for exclusion and others for inclusion.

You don't think governments should be the standard for this, but our own ethical standards. You seemed to start to elaborate on what those were, but when I asked you for more definition, you have seemingly backed away from putting forward any further thoughts.

If you want to urge the nanotech business community to take a proactive role against totalitarian governments by boycotting them, then let's make sure we have all the "bad" and "good" countries identified, so these nanotech companies don't find themselves in a position of hypocrisy.

Howard Lovy said...

Now, I think we're finally getting somewhere. Your opening sentence implied that you do have ethical standards. So, what are they?

Let me back up a little bit and explain what I do on this blog at times. I'm fishing for information. I do not have a well-thought-out position on the issue. That's why I was asking the question, to see whether the nanotech business community has thought about it. This is how I get story ideas, by talking to people. This blog is my public notebook. And it's not unreasonable to ask the question. There are groups that have urged businesses to set human-rights standards. How many businesses or industries follow them, I don't know. I have not looked into the issue yet.

I mention China because I happened to run into another story about a Chinese dissident and connected that with my general understanding that China represents a big opportunity for nanotech companies. I could just as easily mentioned Israel (which is actually working with Palestinians on nanotech solutions for water desalination), India, Pakistan or Iran. Is there/should there be a link between human rights and commerce? Is the solution more economic engagement or less? I don't know.

Judging from how defensive you appear, though, it sounds as if there might be a story here.