The most recent U.S. government figures showed a trade deficit for 2005 of over $700 billion, significantly up from $618 billion in 2004, including a new record deficit with China.

Even agriculture, which for years posted substantial positive balances and was the bright spot in an increasingly dismal U.S. trade picture, had a deficit of some $4 billion in 2005.

In just 30 years, China has gone from an insular, closed-door country to the world’s third largest trading power — an achievement in large part thanks to the United States, which has been responsible for 22 percent of China’s export growth over the past two decades.

Since 2001, U.S. exports to China have grown five times faster than to the rest of the world and China has gone from our ninth largest export customer to fourth, with a 21 percent increase in 2005 alone. A Chinese delegation has recently been on a shopping spree in the United States, among other things making the largest purchase ever of American cotton in a single year to a single market.

It seems little remembered in these days of China as a world economic power and a market that everyone is salivating to be a part of, that it remains a monolithic bastion of communism.

Will flourishing capitalism lead to freedoms and empowerment for its people, or will they continue to be suppressed even as their economic circumstances improve?

The jury’s still out. For sure, China has been a bonanza for multi-national companies that can charge U.S. prices for their goods while paying dirt cheap Chinese wages. But the road is less than smooth for Chinese workers, whose labor makes possible the tsunami of low cost goods flooding the world’s stores, in the process littering the landscape of the United States and other nations with closed factories and businesses, lost jobs, and a declining middle class.

Consider these reports by organizations monitoring human rights in China:

• In the country’s numerous toy factories, employees (mostly women from 17 to 25) often are required to work 16 hours a day, six days a week (sometimes seven), for $50 per month.

• Clothing factory workers, again mostly young women, are paid as little as 50 cents per hour.

• Thousands of workers are killed yearly in mining and manufacturing accidents, working under unsafe/unhealthy conditions that wouldn’t be tolerated in industrialized nations.

Worse, estimates are that millions of workers are owed more than $12 billion in back wages that employers cheat them out of or simply don’t pay — and those who have the temerity to ask for their money risk being beaten by hired goons.

While the communist leadership makes at least tacit efforts to lessen the problem and be more tolerant of the increasing public protests of working conditions, pay, and other human rights issues, incidents of the iron fist still are reported; example, the authorities’ reaction to a recent citizen-led protest against a government project was to shoot 20 or so of the protesters. So much for freedom of assembly and speech.

The Wal-Martization of the world often comes at a price that transcends cheap clothes, shoes, and electronics.

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com