Commentary

Tale of Two Protests

By Daniel Griswold
December 15, 2005
A headline in Thursday’s International Herald Tribune announced, “Protests overshadow world trade meetings: Demonstrations capture media attention.” Some capture more attention than others. Consider a tale of two demonstrations this week in Hong Kong.

Grabbing a huge share of the media spotlight have been a few hundred well-organized, well-disciplined and confrontational South Korean farmers. As you may have seen on the news, the farmers have attempted to march on the WTO conference site to register their objections to any cuts in the massive income support they receive from their government, mostly in the form of prohibitively high tariffs on imported rice.

The Hong Kong police, to their credit, have so far kept the Koreans from disrupting the meetings without using excessive force. I can say from first-hand observation that the demonstrators have not had the slightest impact on the work of the delegates and others attending the ministerial meeting. Still, the confrontations on the street several blocks from the convention center provide photogenic street theater. Reporters and camera crews appear at times to outnumber the farmers.

The protesting farmers may deserve passing news coverage, but not much sympathy. They are far from the poor, subsistence farmers that are all too common in less developed countries. These farmers come from a relatively developed country that actually belongs to the rich-country club known as the Organization for Cooperation and Development. They make their living by hiding behind high trade barriers that force their fellow citizens to pay inflated prices for food while driving down prices on global markets, making it more difficult for truly poor farmers in countries such as Vietnam to lift themselves out of poverty.

The Korean farmers are not protesting any real injustice against them, but the threat that they may lose a special privilege that allows them to exploit their fellow citizens at the expense of some the world’s poorest farmers.

Across Hong Kong Harbor this afternoon, along the waterfront of Kowloon, I joined another kind of demonstration. This one was organized by a local free-market center called the Lion Rock Institute, and its purpose was to call on WTO members to respect the freedom of their citizens to trade. After I delivered a few remarks on how trade is expanding human freedom and reducing poverty around the world, my fellow “demonstrators” unlocked a chain and broke down a wall of cardboard boxes symbolizing the dismantling of trade barriers.

The event was covered by a dozen or so print journalists but not by a single TV camera crew. Attempting to knock down a police barrier commands more attention from the media covering the WTO conference than a call to knock down trade barriers.

Two other quick vignettes from my Thursday in Hong Kong:

On the metro this afternoon, three American men in casual dress entered my same train. Since they did not look the part of serious, dark-suited businessmen or WTO attendees, I asked them if they were tourists. No, they told me, they are here for a year-end check on manufacturing plants in Hong Kong and China that are making parts for their company back in the United States, a certain motorcycle maker called Harley-Davidson. I take it as a good sign for globalization that even Harley-Davidson, which won temporary government protection from its Japanese competitors back in the 1980s, has learned to tap the global supply chain to remain competitive.

My last event tonight before leaving the convention center was to listen to few minutes of speeches in the main plenary hall noting the accession of Tonga, a small island nation in the Pacific, as the 150th member of the WTO. Years from now, I can tell my future grandchildren that I was there

Daniel Griswold is director of the Cato Institute, Center for Trade Policy Studies. He will be filing dispatches this week from Hong Kong, where he is attending the World Trade Organization’s Sixth Ministerial Conference.