U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a week-long meeting with Chinese government and business leaders with a request for the Chinese to give back the millions of jobs American businesses shipped to them over the years.
“We are not blaming you for taking them,” Kerry said in his departing statement, given at the American embassy in Beijing. “We gave them to you of our own free will, and you were free to take them. But we’d like to have them back now, and so if you wouldn’t mind returning them to us, we would appreciate it.”
The United States has transferred some 15 million jobs to Chinese companies since China was granted Most Favored National (MFN) trade status in 1994, when Bill Clinton was president. Since that time, China has grown to have the second largest economy in the world and is on the verge of overtaking the United States in the size of its gross domestic product, although the country would still lag the U.S. in per-capita GDP.
Kerry assured the Chinese leaders that his request to reclaim U.S. jobs had the full backing of the American companies that handed them over in the first place. “Boeing, General Electric, General Motors . . . I’ve spoken to them all and they all want the jobs back,” he said. “They acknowledge they made a mistake and they promise to pay you a little something for your inconvenience in handing them back.”
International observers say it’s unusual for a country to ask for its jobs back after giving them away to other countries to save money on labor costs and to circumvent environmental and labor regulations at home, but it’s not unprecedented.
“Countries live and learn,” says Nigel Lawton, an international labor specialist at the World Bank. “They have companies that think it’s clever to pay a chinese worker $1.29 an hour to manufacture a toaster instead of the $32 an hour it would cost in their home country. But then when the worker who was making $32 an hour can only get a job at a fast food place for $12 an hour, they realize that former worker can’t afford to buy things like a car or even a toaster. So, they think, ‘Hmm, that was a bad idea.'”
The issue has become increasingly urgent in the Unite States, because the country’s economy is splitting into two, with business leaders and other elites taking an ever larger share of the country’s income while everyone else, including formerly middle class people, dropping ever closer to penury.
“It’s a recipe for political upheaval,” says Bill Simpson, an American economist with the International Monetary Fund. “Just look at the rise of Donald Trump and Brexit. These two developments are the direct result of decades of jobs lost to China, India, and other formerly third-world countries. I’m not surprised to see Kerry begging for our jobs back. Unless you’re part of the elite, you’re reduced to flipping burgers or serving coffee to earn a living. These are fine jobs for teenagers, but they’re a comedown for an adult who’s trying to put food on the table and lead a dignified life. I hope China takes pity on us.”
“Please,” Kerry said in his statement before he left for the airport to head back to Washington. “Please give us our jobs back. I beg of you. We are asking you, out of the goodness of your heart, to be a friend and let us make planes, cars, and toasters again. We would really appreciate it if you would, and we would return the favor someday, once we can stand on our own two feet again. It’s going to take a while, but if you help us out at this crucial moment, we will never forget your kindness.”
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