China and gravity

I’ve always been a weird political bird, in that I’m a rabid environmentalist and equally rabid privacy/free-speech advocate. At the same time, I’m also the kind of guy who has skirted being fired over being vocal and active in oppostition to things my company did (this was in the AT&T Wireless days) that I thought weren’t cool.

I may soon end up doing a lot of work in and around China as part of my job, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

Then my friend Joel, who is smart, made a very short argument:
In Cuba, where we’ve had harsh sanctions in place forever, they are no more free and no more prosperous than they were when we started. In China, while there’s internet filtering and so forth, individuals have a lot more freedom than they did at the same point in time: freedom of individual movement, for instance, is much greater.

Still, it’s a weird feeling to have to face working in an environment where oppression and corruption are as pervasive as gravity.

My other problem is that I have two other, larger conflicting views:

I believe that there’s no reason that someone just like me but born in China should make some small percentage of my salary, and not enjoy the freedom I do. I fear the global leveling that could make all of us equally prosperous, because I have mortgage payments to make, but I also believe that trade can create wealth, and so on.

On the other side, though, I fear that free trade doesn’t get to the people. I may buy a graphics card for my PC that’s made in China, but if that money disappears entirely into the pockets of industrialists and officials who keep working conditions terrible, that doesn’t help anything. If the fabricators are all in cahoots, an industry boom doesn’t help the workers.

Or, to put all of my concerns together: does modern technology and process make it possible to keep the average person in the third world in some early Industrial Revolution serfdom forever? Does it matter what I do at all?