Human rights, yes!
but...
please, define rights

No news-day is complete without a story about some US based company's foray in China. The analysis of the US-China relationship poses two interesting levels:
  • At country level, the US and China are neither enemies nor exactly friends--they need each other for debt-financing and know how transfer, respectively, while wary of each other military;
  • At company level, China is viewed in the US both as source of cheap labor and as (future) market.
It follows that, given the unique nature of the relationship, human-rights activists and some US political leaders are out of square with those US companies that help the Chinese officials maintain an autocratic grip on the society at the expense of individual freedom and even liberty. While the activists' and the political leaders' perspectives on China owe much to some evolved cold-war framework, today they don't have much leverage on the Chinese except for the intrinsic appeal and moral superiority of the individual-freedom principles. Indeed, one cannot think of a Chinese equivalent to the corrosive effects of pop-culture in the Soviet Bloc countries. Moreover, due to increased interdependency, whatever level of policy-based economic leverage one can still think of to sway China is fast dwindling.

What is one to think of information-economy type of companies, US based and conducting business in China, that stifle people's needs for individual freedom, or, worse, lead to people imprisonment? How far can the analysis be extended outside information-economy type of companies?

There are not easy answers since members of the US Congress invited some of these companies to Washington; the companies did not make it to Washington, but asked the Congress to push itself for whatever democratic outcome it desires from China. One may call this posturing, I just say this is the new nature of the beast. Thus, a new framework is necessary, yet its makers have not been called to action yet. However necessary this framework is, it won't emerge until a real crisis sets in. To define "real" is to guess anybody's threshold.

On the other hand, it is hard to ask the Chinese people to answer themselves to these questions. It is assumed that a different social contract is at work in China whereby the personal freedom takes a back seat to economic prosperity. And that may well be true, however, due to fear or cynicism, who will dare risk their freedom, for the sake of democracy in China, from inside an Yahoo or Google email account?

P.S. The irony of fate has it that the parents of Messrs. Yang and Brin (founders of Yahoo! and Google, respectively) might have come to the US on individual liberty grounds.

4 comments:

fch said...

According to Wikipedia, Mr. Yang commented that "To be doing business in China, or anywhere else in the world, we have to comply with local law." Hm, could this be selective compliance considering Yahoo went to court to defend its right (to free speech) when it did not abide by a French court rulling that banned the trade of Nazi Memorabilia on Yahoo's French auction sites?

Click here for background info on the case!

Freedom for the Chinese said...

For those lacking the context on the great posting here have a look at this story from Reuters:

U.S. State Dept. to push for online free speech
By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday it had set up a task force to help U.S. technology companies protect freedom of expression in countries like China that censor online content.
State Department officials said they will push to encourage foreign countries to allow greater freedom of expression online and help U.S. businesses figure out what to do when called on to enforce repressive laws in countries where they operate.

"Many technology companies ... want to work to help those who lack the freedom that we often take for granted," said Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, a member of the task force. "If we band together, we can make significant progress on this issue."

Several U.S. tech companies that operate in China have faced criticism in recent months for helping China enforce censorship laws and track down government critics who communicate online.

Microsoft Corp. pulled the Web log, or blog, of a critic of the Chinese government after getting a government order to do so, and Yahoo Inc. (YHOO.O: Quote, Profile, Research) has been criticized for helping Chinese authorities link journalist Shi Tao to a U.S.-based Web site, leading to a 10-year prison sentence for Shi.

Google Inc.'s Chinese search engine blocks many terms associated with topics related to democracy or independence for Tibet and Taiwan.

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems Inc. are scheduled to address the issue at a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

A Yahoo spokeswoman applauded the task force.

"This embraces the government-to-government approach that we've been urging," spokeswoman Mary Osako said.

A Microsoft spokeswoman declined immediate comment but noted Microsoft and Yahoo earlier this month called on Washington to discuss censorship issues with the Chinese government.

Google officials were not immediately available for comment.

An online civil-liberties advocate said the United States can exert much more influence on foreign governments than individual companies can on their own.

"If the government is going to figure out how to use its powers to help these companies, then that's probably a good thing," said Leslie Harris, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.

Harris said that the United States will need to push back to ensure that China's censored version of the Internet does not become a global standard.

Anonymous said...

Key points of proposed U.S. Internet freedom bill
Wed Feb 15, 2006



WASHINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee on human rights said on Wednesday he would soon introduce legislation affecting U.S. technology firms operating in China and other restrictive countries.

Following are key points of Rep. Chris Smith's proposed "Global Online Freedom Act of 2006" based on a draft circulated by the New Jersey lawmaker:

- China, Iran and Vietnam would be initially designated as Internet-restricting countries based on systematic curbs on Internet freedom. Twelve other countries, including Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan are identified as restrictive, subject to annual reviews.

- U.S. firms which create, provide or host Internet search engines would be forbidden to locate their search engines within designated Internet-restricting countries.

- U.S. firms would be forbidden to alter the search engines in response to requests from Internet-restricting countries or make changes that produced search engine results within restricting countries that differ from results elsewhere.

- U.S. search engine providers must transparently share with the U.S. Office of Global Internet freedom details of terms or parameters submitted by Internet-restricting countries.

- U.S. businesses maintaining Internet content hosting services can personally identify users only for cases of legitimate law enforcement purposes as determined by the U.S. Department of Justice.

fCh said...

The problem here is that well-meaning folks in the US Congress want some US companies to do what they do not do themselves--that is to promote human rights in the Chinese society. We'll be watching the events as they unfold and take note of the shape of things to come...

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