conference room at my office there's a giant photo of a lone
Chinese man standing in front of a row of tanks. It's the classic photo
from Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989, when 100,000 brave students
peacefully assembled to protest the corrupt and repressive Chinese
government. For their heroic actions many were crushed by tanks, beaten
by soldiers, or jailed,
and some of the protest's
organizers were forced to flee
their homeland forever.
Sixteen years later, one can hardly pick up a business magazine without
seeing a screaming
headline about the importance of China. With 20% of all earth's
inhabitants and a
migration from communism to capitalism China is a tantalizing
opportunity for virtually any corporation. What's rarely mentioned is
the brutal regime still in power continues to jail people for
the most basic of liberties we take for granted in Western society.
Recently, technology companies who have opened shops for business in
China are confronted with an ethical dilemma. In a quest for growth and
profits, how much do they kowtow to the Chinese government, which
tramples human rights and demands corporations to assist in continued
crackdowns of freedom?
All the major search engines have given in to Chinese demands to
throttle liberty in exchange for access to the Chinese market. Google
removed news listing from its popular news search to publications
critical of Chinese policy such as Epoch
Times, Voice of America and a
dozen other publications. Microsoft has blocked users of its MSN site
from using the terms "freedom," "democracy" and other concepts China
designated as "dangerous."
The argument in favor of corporate self-censorship is that the massive
amount of information NOT filtered is slowly informing the Chinese
populace about freedom, which is another way of saying that the good
outweighs the bad. There may be truth in this, but at the same time
it's clear that the Communist oligarchy believes that they can extend
their control of their populace with the cooperation of American
businesses into the digital age.
Most disconcerting are recent reports that Yahoo!'s Hong Kong operation
turning over emails which helped convict a reporter. Journalist Shi Tao
was jailed and sentenced to 10 years in prison for "illegally
sending state secrets abroad." The secrets that he revealed were
information his newspaper received from the state propaganda department
about how they could cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square
massacre. He was identified because he had used Yahoo!'s free email
service for which Yahoo! turned over log files to authorities that were
later tracked back to his computer.
It's easy to brush off the matter as an unfortunate incident that
happens in a corrupt government on the other side of the globe. After
all, Yahoo! has to respond to court orders in China just as my
would have to respond to court orders served on them in the United
States. In addition, they have obligations to their shareholders to
grow the company, not battle against government policies they might
disagree with. It's possible that Yahoo! did not
know why the government was requesting the information or understand
the implications of their participation. And maybe Yahoo!'s employees
were even threatened themselves with jail if they did not comply.
Still, I wonder how they would react if the court order was for
information to identify their Mom instead of a faceless Chinese
their mother was at the center of the controversy and risked a
decade-long sentence in a Chinese prison where torture and hard labor
uncommon, would they willingly provide the information?
It's one thing to engage in self-censorship, preventing someone from
discussing "freedom" and "human rights" or blocking news sources. In
nobody goes to prison. Nobody is tortured. Nobody is physically harmed.
It's an entirely different level to actively participate in turning
over information which leads to
jailing of citizens for the most basic freedom of press issues. It
makes me wonder where the moral lines are when chasing a dollar. Would
those companies turn over information that leads to executions for
those that violate freedom of speech?
With the secrecy shrouding the Chinese government, it's likely other
companies have been forced to take similar actions. Yahoo! is in the
unfortunate position of being the first Internet
company to be publicly outed when they've cooperated with the Chinese
in such a manner.
Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft may act like they are powerless in this
situation, bound by the laws of the countries they operate in, but
that's ridiculous. Surely they recognize the power they have in going
public with this information - the power to reach the media, influence
their users and bring diplomatic and political pressure on China. It's
no secret that as the host of 2008 Olympics in Beijing they are
sensitive to public
perception and scrutiny.
For Shi Tao's sake, I hope we have not heard the final chapter of this
story. I hope that Yahoo! is working behind the scenes to see that Mr.
Tao does not spend the next decade in prison for sending an email
message. It's important for Yahoo! to come out publicly as well and say
they strongly oppose the Chinese government's actions and remind people
of the basic liberties Chinese are still deprived of.
It's even more important for the next Shi Tao. I hope he or she will
confidence that while American companies may be forced to cooperate in
situations in which they do not agree, they do so under both public and
private protest. I'm
not naive enough to think that speaking out against the Chinese
government won't possibly provoke retaliation. It is rarely convenient
to do the right thing. But I
hope Americans, from the safety and freedom afforded us in the United
States, will muster a tiny fraction of the courage of the man in
front of the tanks and speak out.
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