Monday, September 19, 2005

In China, "Business as Usual" is Bad

The big story of the day, of course, is North Korea's decision to scrap its nuclear weapons program. Elsewhere, in Afghanistan, a moderately successful election was held despite Taliban threats and security concerns. Amidst the reports of these twin triumphs, however, is the story of a Chinese journalist recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for publishing a summary of the Communist Party's handling of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacres.

What makes this case unique is that the Chinese government enlisted Yahoo Inc.'s help in using Shi Tao's private email account as evidence against him. On Sunday, the Washington Post was blistering in its criticism:
"Over the past two decades, many have argued -- ourselves included -- that despite China's authoritarian and sometimes openly hostile government, it is nevertheless right to encourage American companies to work there. Their very presence has been thought to make the society more open, if not necessarily more democratic. If that is no longer the case -- if, in fact, American companies are helping China become more authoritarian, more hostile and more of an obstacle to U.S. goals of democracy promotion around the world -- then it is time to rethink the rules under which they operate."

Earlier this summer, I was appalled to hear that Microsoft had cooperated with the Chinese government by making the words "freedom" and "democracy" banned on the Chinese version of the MSN Spaces blogging tool. From personal experience, I already knew that Google and Yahoo searches conducted in China were subject to filtering. Cisco Systems has already helped the Chinese government set up the most sophisticated Internet monitoring system in the world.

American companies are helping a repressive regime tighten control over its people. Why? As Anne Applebaum has noted, "If this isn't illegal, maybe it should be." She brings up the IBM-Holocaust connection to suggest that the companies enabling China today should think twice. In pursuit of the bucks, Microsoft, Yahoo, et al., have struck a devil's bargain that is at odds with our own national interest.

Legality aside, the immorality of it all is disgusting. We should be pushing for the increased liberalization of China, not helping to reverse it. In the future, China should not be able to impose anathematic conditions on our tech companies' services. Take it as is, or leave it, thank you very much. I'd sleep better at night knowing that we were not contributing to the setback of democratic progress in China. Just ask Shi Tao.

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