Back in the late 1990s, when I was working as a journalist in China, I happened to read Timothy Garton Ash’s The File. It’s a personal account about what happened in East Germany soon after the Berlin wall fell, when East Germans were suddenly able to access their Stasi police files. As it turned out, secret police informants included neighbors, lovers, spouses and in some cases even people’s own children. One evening over dinner with some Chinese friends, I described the book and asked how they thought things might play out in a post-Communist China. One friend replied: “That day will come in China too. Then I’ll know who my real friends are.” The table fell silent.
Today China’s leaders are fighting hard not to follow their East German and Soviet counterparts into the dustbin of history. Newspaper and magazine editors who have dared to publish stories exposing government lies and abuses of power have recently been sacked. Behind-the-scenes accounts of the sackings, defiant statements by the sacked editors and reproductions of the offending articles have spread like viruses all over the Chinese Internet. Chinese censors, enlisting the help of private Internet companies–both domestic and foreign–have been working overtime to remove the offending content. But they simply can’t keep up with the viral spread of information in cyberspace.
The question is not whether the Chinese Communist Party will succeed in hanging on to power. The real question is, For how long? A few years? A few decades? Another half-century?
When change comes, will the new Chinese democrats thank companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Cisco for bringing them the Internet as a catalyst for freedom? Or will they curse them for helping a corrupt and unaccountable regime hang on to power longer than it might have, thus ruining a lot of lives that might otherwise not have been ruined? Will the Chinese thank the American people for their support? Or will they mutter under their breath about hypocrites who talked a big game about freedom and democracy–but who weren’t willing to forego a cent of profit to help non-Americans realize those ideals?
On February 15, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Cisco were called on the carpet in a Congressional hearing for aiding and abetting Chinese government efforts to censor the Internet, monitor its citizens and suppress dissent online. Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, asked executives of some of the world’s most powerful companies how they can possibly sleep at night. All four responded with variations on the following theme: The Chinese people are still better off because US companies engage with the Chinese market and connect China to the global Internet. They’re doing their best to do the right thing, but it’s impossible to keep your hands completely clean in a place like China. You still have to follow Chinese laws and regulations even if Chinese law enforcement is rather less accountable than back home.
It’s important to be clear–as many members of Congress at the hearings did not appear to be–that these four companies have all made different choices about their business practices in China. They fall at very different points along an “evil scale.” Here’s how they shake down:
sells routers with censorship capability built into them, but the same technology is necessary to protect computer networks from viruses. It remains unclear exactly how much training and service Cisco knowingly provides to Chinese customers whose primary intent is to censor political speech. But meanwhile, it does acknowledge selling surveillance technologies directly to the Chinese Public Security Bureau and other law-enforcement bodies in a country where law enforcement is well documented to commit rampant human rights abuses. Cisco’s excuse? Selling communications technology to these organizations is not against US law. If I were a Chinese dissident, I’d be grateful that Cisco had helped bring the Internet to China, but I’d also be outraged that Cisco may have helped the cops keep me under surveillance and catch me trying to organize protest activities.