3/15/2009

The right target for a boycott?


By Daniel A. Bell

Shortly after the Olympic torch’s troubled passage through Paris last April, Chinese nationalists organized a campaign to boycott the French supermarket Carrefour. The chain store is perhaps the most visible symbol of French life in China, with 135 outlets in the country's major cities. Thousands of nationalists were mobilized outside Carrefour outlets and many customers were afraid to shop there.

But the boycott was completely irrational. Carrefour China had nothing to do with pro-Tibetan protests in France and even the disabled athlete Jin Jing who was targeted by protesters in France spoke out against the boycott. Over 90 percent of Carrefour China’s employees are Chinese and they were the first to be hit by the boycott. Fortunately, it fizzled out without any major damage.

The general principle is that boycotts only make sense if they target the company that is partly, if not mainly, responsible for the immoral deed identified by protesters. And now, there’s a much better case to boycott a French company. Pierre Berge, personal and business partner of Yves Saint Laurent, put on sale two eighteenth century bronze heads that were looted by British and French forces from the imperial gardens of the Summer Palace outside Beijing in 1860. The site is still rubble and it is a bitter reminder of China’s humiliation at the hands of imperial powers.

The Chinese government had requested their return and a group of Chinese lawyers tried to block the auction but a French court allowed the sale to proceed. Pierre Berge had the chutzpah to claim that the Chinese government could have the looted goods if it would “observe human rights and give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcome the Dalai Lama.” One might imagine the reaction to a collector who says he will return goods looted by the Nazis only if Israel pulls out of the occupied territories.

As it happens, the sale went ahead and the heads were bought by a Chinese collector and auctioneer, Cai Mingchao. With equal chutzpah – and this time, more justified chutzpah – Mr. Cai said that he won’t pay the money on moral grounds. The outcome of this fascinating case remains unclear, but what’s clear is that Pierre Berge and Yves Saint Laurent are responsible for this mess and they should pay the price.

In 1861, the great French writer Victor Hugo wrote, "I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China." It's never too late to fulfill this hope. What anti-imperialists everywhere can do is boycott Yves Saint Laurent products until they deliver the looted goods back to their rightful Chinese owners. So, yes, there is a case for boycotting Yves Saint Laurent. But it should be a targeted and non-violent boycott, not a general attack on innocent French people and companies.

This piece appeared in Chinese on March 10 as "中国人该抵制谁" in 环球时报. Daniel A. Bell is a professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University and the author, most recently, of China's New Confucianism.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. I copied the Chinese title and searched it on google, but found nothing. Then I realized the China Beat has got it wrong. It's 抵制,not 低制。

Anonymous said...

Although, I have to say, the article is very interesting in English, but quite lackluster in its Chinese translation.

The China Beat said...

Good catch--thanks for pointing it out.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to know if Mr.Berge still holds large YSL
stakes. After all, if he is no longer a significant stakeholder, as
I think is so, because YSL is now part of the Gucci empire, then by
boycotting YSL now, one is simply hurting the corporate overlord(Italian
one I guess) and an indeterminate numbers of workers of it, a fair number
of them would be in China, I suspect.

In general, I don't believe in boycott in this interconnected world. I
think the right way to do it is simply to buy it, either by the
government or by a private philanthropist, as was done with the other
head. It is difficult to trace the property line. Mr. Berge or Mr.
St. Laurent presumably paid a fair price market for them as they know
it, and they may even not have known the true provenance of the art.
They did not loot it. Returning it to China would be a moral gesture
on Mr. Berge's part, but not legally required. Though his remarks may
be grating, it does not negate his right of ownership.

Though Mr Berge articulated it very offensively, Chinese nationalists
will do their country more good if they try to learn or reflect more on
Tibetan policies, just as surely I think Israelis would benefit from a
bit reflection on their Palestinian policy. As 子贡 said
"君子之过也,如日月之食焉", though CCP is certainly not by any stretch
"君子" in the Tibetan policy, I think Chinese would do well to get used
to foreign criticism as their country gain prominence and do the
constructive thing: analyzing it: "有则改之,无则加勉", as 朱熹 said.

If Chinese government wants to do so, they should formally ask the
Anglo-French government for reparation to compensate them the price
they paid for the object. After all they are the ones responsible for
the act by the indiscipline of their troops. But this would open a
floodgate of reparation claims for colonial exploits. This should be a
political decision, and I doubt the right one would be to press the
case to the detriment of other pressing mutual interest, if there are
such.

Let's not forget the art pieces themselves are the works of European
artists under commission of the court. As such they represent an
open-minded appreciation of other cultures and self-confident,
inclusive spirits of the court at the time. As China gains prominence,
continuing backward-looking self-positioning in the context of
victimizations and humiliations are in fact detrimental to the
confident conduct commensurate with national interests and
international obligations now and in the future.

Anonymous said...

Daniel Bell's recent book *China's New Confucianism* is an embarassment - a lame attempt at scholarship. Now he's writing for 環球? You've got to be kidding me. Has Prof. Bell ever written anything worth including on a graduate seminar reading list? Tsinghua University can have him.

As for this post - why bother? As per usual, Prof. Bell adds nothing particularly interesting or revealing to the discussion on this subject. The less we hear from him, the better. The China Beat should can this joker and publish more of, say, Lee Haiyan's work. She actually has something interesting to say about, well, almost everything - including the Summer Palace (her recent essay in the journal *Modern China* puts Daniel Bell to shame).

pkd said...

The Chinese only want the bronze heads because they were looted by foreign forces, yet they don't seem to mind the fact that they belonged to Manchu invaders in the first place. Meanwhile, beginning nearly a century later, the CCP has continued inflicting damage upon other historical artifacts, not to mention actual human beings. By Daniel's logic, the party responsible for the immoral deeds should certainly be boycotted. Yet apparently it's perfectly acceptable to destroy one's own property and mistreat one's own citizenry.

Michael Turton said...

You are right to note that it is hypocritical for Berge to make the claim about the looted bronzes and Tibet, and that they should be returned, but the Nazi comparison is absurdly provocative and illogical.

Also, isn't it time we westerners stopped playing to the trope that China was "humiliated" by the western powers in the 19th century? That's a highly problematic claim on many levels, ranging from whether it is possible to say there was a "China" to whether a Manchu garden full of art objects collected/made/paid for as/by tribute squeezed out of the Chinese people for the owners of that great empire can be described as "Chinese." Repeating victimization propaganda like "Chinese humiliation" serves no one.

Michael

Jeremiah said...

Dan,

I think you're right that if somebody felt strongly about this issue, a peaceful boycott of YSL would be an appropriate response and I agree with your overall argument as well as your take on the situation.

I might suggest however that asking your reader to compare Nazi loot and a hypothetical offer for Israel to the Yuanmingyuan bronzes and M. Berge's offer regarding Tibet was a bit jarring, to say the least, and something people might find in poor taste. It's certainly a juxtaposition which made me personally uneasy.

I do a lot of research on 19th century imperialism in China, and I am well aware of the considerable damage done by British, French, and American troops, but I wonder if there might be a more suitable analogy or heuristic device. Certainly history is wide enough, and contains sufficient parallel examples of imperialist brutality, that we need not reach for the Holocaust.

Anonymous said...

Please, China Beat, no more essays from Prof. Bell. Leave his work to the NY Times and 環球日報. There's a big difference between a scholar and a hack.

Tiffany said...

I thought the comparison for a demand of Isreal withdraw is particularly illustrative. Both scenrios are juxtaposed over concrete historical entaglements that are still valid today.

Berge's self-congratulatory smugness is rather dilutional. My neighbors (Turkish-French grad students) had some rather colorful description regarding French government's treatment towards its own minority group.

Daniel A. Bell said...

Jeremiah,
Thanks for your comment. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, I was attacked in a Chinese language blog for comparing Tibet to the occupied territories. But both criticisms are off base because I was drawing an analogy, not equating Nazism with 19th century Western imperialism or Tibet with the occupied territories in Palestine. An analogy, according to the American heritage dictionary, is defined as "similarity in some respects between things that are otherwise dissimilar." My aim was to imagine a more extreme example to illustrate the basic principle at stake: that looted goods should be returned to their rightful owners, and the possessors of looted goods are in no position to condition the return of looted goods on improved moral behavior on the part of the rightful owners. One can imagine some scenarios where we might want to make exceptions -- e.g., one wouldn't have encouraged the return of looted art during the Cultural Revolution when it might have been destroyed by Red Guards -- but such exceptions do not apply in the case of contemporary China (or Israel, for that matter). Best, Dan

Peony said...

While I basically disagree with Bell's position, I was more discouraged by the comments. I think perhaps the only comment that actually sought to engage the author's point was the 3rd anonymous comment-- the other comments seeming to be more what I would call knee-jerk reactions to the Man (including the usual ad hominem attacks) or misunderstandings about the way the analogy functioned logically within his argument. It is a shame since this issue of returning looted art is becoming increasignly discussed around the world and is worthy of serious thought, I'd say.

Just addressing the person who left the 3rd anonymous comment, like you, I also tend to disagree with Bell's position for similar reasons, but borrowing your logic, the boycott was not official governmental action but is an expression of emotion by common people. This is perhaps an important distinction.

I absolutely agree that art such as this, when possible, should be re-purchased and then protected under laws governing national treasures. I also agree with you that goverenments should be open to criticism. However, the boycott in question stands as an activity apart from official government so in that way-- and for very much the reasons you offered-- I think carrefour is fair game. For like you said, nowadays corporations are owned and controlled by a variety of interests so that such pure one-for-one causality as Bell was demanding is not probably realistic. We also live in an age of increasing media importance (so events are inevitably put on for media really) therefore boycotters-- in order to effectively make their points "newsworthy"- would naturally tend toward symbolic or big name names to boycott. Hence: Carrefour.

**
Pkd,
By Daniel's logic, the party responsible for the immoral deeds should certainly be boycotted. Yet apparently it's perfectly acceptable to destroy one's own property and mistreat one's own citizenry.
Just in the name of fair play, I would like to point out that NO, I don't actually think that was the author's logic.

Not only does the author never say this but nothing in his argument would lead to a conclusion such as you have stated, the parameters of his argument are concerning art which is controversial for the following reasons: it is
STOLEN ART/LOOTED ART/ALLEDGED STOLEN ART

The author makes no claim about how a country treats art domestically in the past or present.

I am currently working on a large translation project on the art of Bezeklik and one of the claims made by the German team who cut the murals right off the cave walls for transport back to Berlin was that they were saving the the art from Muslim iconoclasts. That wasn't really their call to make though was it? And look at how it turned out. What was probably the finest paintings in all of Central Asia have been lost forever-- the majority were lost due to bombing during WW2 while another large portion was lost somehow as part of the myetries surrounding Count Otani.

But in fact, Bell makes no real claims about this either-- he is only talking about the return of art that has survived-- and I think that is quite clear in his logically presentation.

**

Finally to Michael T.

but the Nazi comparison is absurdly provocative and illogical You state this but nowhere argue it. In fact, I would go as far to say that you didn't really understand the original analogy as no where was the author (Bell) ever talking about Nazis. Again, like Bezeklik above, this short article was about one thing: contemporary approaches for handling the controversary around stolen art.

This was never about the holocaust, the Nazis or anything surrounding how the art was looted...

I make this point only because I believe the underlying issue of the *contemporary* status of such art is worthy of logical engagement.

To be honest Michael, I found the rest of your comment rather discouraging. The art in question is tied up with other post opium war events and as such it is pretty sensitive a topic I would say. Really, under your definition of "problematic" (I paste here)

That's a highly problematic claim on many levels, ranging from whether it is possible to say there was a "China" to whether a Manchu garden full of art objects collected/made/paid for as/by tribute squeezed out of the Chinese people for the owners of that great empire can be described as "Chinese."

Not only China, but India and Indonesia would also not have a leg to stand on either, would they? Because in fact colonizing usually ocurred in precisely such places (and that is why "divide and conquer" was one very affective means of maintaining colonial power). And these art works in particular are tied up with that history. Not just these art works either for Western European art history has a long history of looted art which has no parallel anywhere in terms of volume and continuity-- indeed, it is very intimately tied up to Western Europe's colonial past. This is not to say that no other country ever stole art. This is not to say that no other country ever "humilated" another country nor did great damage to its own. It is only to suggest that the insensitivity surrounding these particular art works are bound up with a colonial history that really happened (and when the rememberance of history turns into "propaganda" is a very slippery slope which needs to be logically argued-- not just stated as if fact-- but again, that is very off the topic of this article.)

**
Finally, my last complaint. I have had 3 separate comments disappear here. Jeremiah promises me that he will make sure this time my comment does not disappear into the ether (I think that was Kate's description of what happened to my comments). I think for a site dedicated to open and free speech you all might want to make sure you are handling the comments you receive in a fair manner. I say this having been burned three times here...

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Dear Professor Bell,

The basic principle that you identify as being at stake in this issue - "that looted goods should be returned to their rightful owners, and the possessors of looted goods are in no position to condition the return of looted goods on improved moral behavior on the part of the rightful owners" - is one that I personally fully endorse. As a value-pluralist, I appreciate the empirical fact that criticisms by French looters should not invoke universalist conceptions of human rights, since there is no moral code that has authority over all peoples and all circumstances. Eastern and Western conceptions of morality for example, while overlapping on a great many things, differ systematically in the emphasis each places on the value of individuality and community. At any rate, to insist that those you have stolen from must first conform to your standard of morality in exchange for returning what you have stolen is clearly hypocritical.

I have, incidentally, read a few of your books and sometimes quote from them when developing discourse of my own. I'm wondering (if you have both the time and the incination) whether you might care to read the Introductory and Human Rights essays that I wrote for my website, China Discourse, as I would very much appreciate your criticisms. The address is chinadiscourse.net

Daniel A. Bell said...

To Mark Anthony Jones: Thanks for your comment. I tried to access your site, but it seems to be blocked here in Beijing. Perhaps you can send me an email at daniel.a.bell@gmail.com with your papers and we can communicate directly.

To Peony. Thanks for your long comment! Agreed that the third anonymous comment is the only one that really engages with my argument. Weird how "liberals" attack the person rather than the argument and call for silencing voices they disagree with. Anyway, I've written a response to the thoughtful comment by "anonymous", but maybe there was a problem so let me send it again (slightly edited; if the earlier version is eventually posted and the reader has already read my response, kindly skip the rest of my comment):

I would like to respond to the long thoughtful comments by “Anonymous”:

Anonymous says: "It would be interesting to know if Mr.Berge still holds large YSL
stakes. After all, if he is no longer a significant stakeholder, as
I think is so, because YSL is now part of the Gucci empire, then by
boycotting YSL now, one is simply hurting the corporate overlord(Italian
one I guess) and an indeterminate numbers of workers of it, a fair number
of them would be in China, I suspect."

DB: Fair point. I was working on the assumption that Mr. Berge, who is described as a “business partner” of YSL, is a significant stakeholder. If that’s no longer the case, then boycotting YSL is less justified. But perhaps YSL can clarify the situation by disassociating the company from Berge and disavowing his public comments.

Anonymous says: "In general, I don't believe in boycott in this interconnected world. I
think the right way to do it is simply to buy it, either by the
government or by a private philanthropist, as was done with the other
head. It is difficult to trace the property line. Mr. Berge or Mr.
St. Laurent presumably paid a fair price market for them as they know
it, and they may even not have known the true provenance of the art.
They did not loot it."

DB: Given all the controversies these days in the art market about whether or not to return stolen goods, it is hard to believe that Mr. Berge did not know about the art's dubious origins (if not, he should have looked into it before purchasing the looted goods). And if somebody purchases something that is likely to have been stolen, they do not have the moral right to keep it.

Anonymous says: "Returning it to China would be a moral gesture
on Mr. Berge's part, but not legally required. Though his remarks may
be grating, it does not negate his right of ownership."

DB: Whatever the law says, his ownership has dubious moral status and consumers have the power not to purchase goods from YSL if they so choose to show that they object.

Anonymous says: "Though Mr Berge articulated it very offensively, Chinese nationalists
will do their country more good if they try to learn or reflect more on
Tibetan policies, just as surely I think Israelis would benefit from a
bit reflection on their Palestinian policy. As 子贡 said
"君子之过也,如日月之食焉", though CCP is certainly not by any stretch
"君子" in the Tibetan policy, I think Chinese would do well to get used
to foreign criticism as their country gain prominence and do the
constructive thing: analyzing it: "有则改之,无则加勉", as 朱熹 said."

DB: Those are separate issues. My understanding of Confucianism is that we should be open to criticisms and always strive for self-improvement and reflect upon our own faults first and foremost. But it doesn’t mean that we should be indifferent to injustices committed against our own families and communities. If a robber comes into my home to steal something, I should not be indifferent. I may not be treating my children in the best possible way and should strive to do better in that respect, but the point about the need to respond to injustices committed against my family and community still stands. (Note: this is an analogy used for the purpose of highlighting my argument, not an exact parallel with the case we are discussing).


Anonymous says: "If Chinese government wants to do so, they should formally ask the
Anglo-French government for reparation to compensate them the price
they paid for the object. After all they are the ones responsible for
the act by the indiscipline of their troops. But this would open a
floodgate of reparation claims for colonial exploits. This should be a
political decision, and I doubt the right one would be to press the
case to the detriment of other pressing mutual interest, if there are
such."

DB: Perhaps. But consumers can also do what they can, such as targeted boycotts, to show that they care about this issue.

Anonymous says: "Let's not forget the art pieces themselves are the works of European
artists under commission of the court. As such they represent an
open-minded appreciation of other cultures and self-confident,
inclusive spirits of the court at the time. As China gains prominence,
continuing backward-looking self-positioning in the context of
victimizations and humiliations are in fact detrimental to the
confident conduct commensurate with national interests and
international obligations now and in the future."

DB: Perhaps. But past injustices still matter from a moral point of view and China has the right to seek to remedy them to the extent possible, just as other countries do.

BTD said...

The closed-minded-ness of the alleged open-minded "liberals" never stops surprising me. Much of their argument, like Berge's, is a typical defense that a rapist likes to use in court: since the victim is a whore, and she steals and doesn't raise her child properly, I won't apologize to her before she changes her ways. But the simple logic here is that someone else's wrong doesnt' make one right.