Never Poke a Dragon While It’s Eating

(Caveat, something of a rant coming). I've been unsettled about this whole China thing for a while, so to help me think things through, I called Xiao Qiang, a physicist who knows the China regime first hand, and has wrangled with it as the founder of Human Rights In…

Chinese-Dragon-Green-17-Large (Caveat, something of a rant coming).

I’ve been unsettled about this whole China thing for a while, so to help me think things through, I called Xiao Qiang, a physicist who knows the China regime first hand, and has wrangled with it as the founder of Human Rights In China, then continued to think deeply about it as a scholar at the Berkeley China Internet Project, which was founded while I was still teaching at the school.

I caught Xiao at a good time, as he is leaving to testify in Washington Tuesday. He was ready to talk, and so was I, and together we puzzled through the rash of recent events – the two Yahoo incidents, the launch of, the recent hearings in Congress, Google’s defiance of the DOJ and the eerie parallels between the US’s snooping for reasons of “National Security” and China’s, Yahoo’s call for help today, etc. If ever there was a critical mass building for some kind of action on this issue, why, it seems now would be it.

So what to say about all this? After all, can we really expect private companies to effect national and international policy? Perhaps if they banded together – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL (GYMA) – and said “Enough! We ask the Chinese government to respect the basic rights of humans to free speech and free association!” After all, besides the universal claim that “going into China, even censored, is better than not going in, in terms of total information available to the Chinese user,” the real reason all these companies are going in is, well, their competitors are going in. What if they all agreed to hold hands and...not jump?

Oh please, I then say to myself. Don’t be freakin’ naive. Unity on an issue as freighted as national policy on China? This from a group of companies who can’t even interconnect their goddamn IM networks? It’ll never happen.

Let’s set up the problem here, just for reference sake. After all, what’s the big deal? Just like a sneaker company, Yahoo, Google, et al all have to play by Chinese rules in order to do business in China. If Nike can do it, why not Google?

Well, let’s break that one down. What happens when Nike gets itself into a PR pickle over, say, child labor or issues of environmental degradation or fair wages? Why, Nike simply pledges to do better, to spend a bit more to nominally clean up the environment, or to pay its workers a living wage, or to not hire children. Such practices cost Nike a bit more money, but don’t raise any eyebrows in Beijing. Nothing wrong with a US company spending more in China, after all.

But companies like Yahoo and Google don’t traffic in sneakers, they traffic in the most powerful forces in human culture – expression. Knowledge. Ideas. The freedom of which we take as fundamental in this country, yet somehow, we seem to have forgotten its importance in the digital age – in China, one protesting email can land you in jail for 8 years, folks.

But… should GYMA decide they wanted to create some kind of pact that actually, well, had an opinion about how those forces of freedom should be let loose in a place like China, well, we all know how that would fly in Beijing. Not to mention Wall Street, of course.

But, some protest, the US policy of constructive engagement is working! Look how the Chinese economy is booming! How a new middle class is rising up! It’s only a matter of time before that middle class demands some form of democracy, and the US policy will be vindicated.

Oh, really? Really? If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Baghdad. The Chinese own a shitload of our debt, and are consuming a shitload of the world’s export base of oil. As they consolidate their power, do you really believe they’re also planning parades for us? I’m pretty sure they’ll be celebrating decades of US policy that looked the other way while the oligarchy used our technology (and that includes our routers, databases, and consulting services) to meticulously undermine the very values which allowed us to create companies like Google in the first place. But those are not the kind of celebrations I’m guessing we’d be invited to.

So as I puzzle through this issue, understanding how in practical terms it’s really not sensible to expect that some GYMA pact is going to change the world (as much as I might wish it would), it really, honestly, comes down to one thing: The man in the White House.

Until the person leading this country values human rights over appeasement, and decides to lead on this issue, we’re never going to make any progress. Congress can call hearings, and beat up Yahoo, Google and the others for doing what everyone else is doing, but in the end, it’s not GYMA’s fault, nor, as much as I wish they’d take it on, is it even their problem. It’s our government’s problem. Since when is China policy somehow the job of private industry?

Until that government gives GYMA a China policy it can align behind, well, they’ll never align, and the very foundation of our culture – free expression and privacy, will be imperiled.

After all, the Chinese leaders must be thinking, as they snack on our intellectual property, we’re only protecting our citizens in the name of national security.

Just like they do in the US, right?

Update: The Tibetans are protesting Google. Ugh.

24 thoughts on “Never Poke a Dragon While It’s Eating”

  1. >It’s only a matter of time before that middle class demands
    >some form of democracy, and the US policy will be

    Actually, I think this will be the case for China – just like it happened in South Korea and in Taiwan. However, China is a HUGE country and it will take a long, long, long time for economic properity to trickle across its population.

  2. Consider this theory. I think the republicans secret agenda is to delay the development of democracy on the internet as much as possible. They hope for one or two terms more.

    I think, that if the ‘inventor of the internet’, Al Gore, had been president since 2001, I think now only would China have totally free un filtered fiber optic internet to most of their population by now, but USA, Europe and the rest of the world would allready have changed their constitutions to allow internet democracy govern over traditionnal elected representative politicians.

    USA is really not a good example of a democracy. Bush is constantly misleading the country. One lie is uncovered after the other. Bush wants to know what the world is thinking by reading Google’s search results. Bush wants to pump more oil and doesn’t care about the people living in the middle east. Bush wiretaps his political opponnents without warrants so he can better prepare his terror alerts to get the TV-glued publics to stay as silent as possible.

    Sure, I’m not saying European politicians and Chinese politicians are much better, but I’m saying for sure that Bush is evil. I think the Bush gang also probably had something to do with the nasdaq crash that happened just before he took office, during the campaign… Bush does not like the internet. A filtered China is better for Bush.

  3. Excellent post, John. Thanks for taking the time to think this important issue through. The conclusion, however, on the man in the White House, I find hard to swallow. Considering if you will that mid-term elections are on their way, and if enough people demand a new policy, couldn’t this become an issue that rises to the top — rather than waiting for the top to rise to the occassion, which could be a long wait?

  4. *applause*, +1!

    But looking closer, I still think that having a strong stance would be smart for one of the engines to differentiate, especially if your brand is built on siding with users. Not because the users in the western world – most of them already forgot this – but in China itself:

    Just a thought experiment: If Coca Cola had struck a deal with the Sovjet Union to distribute their beverage, maybe under the condition of having a hammer and sikle on every can, then imagine after the iron curtain came down: Who would have the stronger brand? Coca Cola the appeaser or Pepsi the finally-available-western-icon-for-freedom? With all the fuzz about freedom – as you point out so well – and Google’s former position on it: Do they send the signal to chinese citizens that they don’t expect the restrictions to go away anytime soon, and thus can’t wait?

    And if Google was being used so much *despite* the terrible uptime, then that’s a clear signal for underlying desires in itself! Unfortunately, no focus group in China will tell you.

  5. China owns a shitload of our debt, but we’re also their biggest customer. If you ask a CCP member (my brother in law is in the CCP – seriously, I’m not joking), he’ll tell you they’re scared shitless because their economy is so dependent on foreign investment.

    The view that the CCP is a massive state apparatus with Hu Jintao and his minions at the controls is, quite simply, wrong. Power in China is very decentralized, which is why the economy there is not really a single national market, but rather a dozen or so smaller markets of 10-20 million people.

    Democracy in China will not come from large Tianenmen-style protests for abstract concepts like freedom. It will be incrementally emerge as the result of thousands of local protests over local issues, mainly environmental and property rights issues.

    Of course, rights will be violated and injustices done, but rights will also be upheld. A century ago the word “protest” in America meant Haymarket Square riots (“radical anarchists”, not MLK marches and speeches on the mall.

    My point: I’d rather a would-be protestor read up on the research about PCBs and mercury levels in fish via Google than not have access to Google at all.

  6. John, your post was interesting and informative until you took that wild left turn into the claim that it’s all Bush’s fault.

    What exactly do you want Bush (or Clinton, or McCain, or whoever) to do? Make it a crime to do business in China without some adherence to a set of human rights rules? And what would those rules be? Remember, we (who live in the land of the free) are seeing people fired over what they blog, so I’d argue even we don’t know where to set the limits for freedom of speech.

  7. I disagree weith the premise that its not GYMA’s responsibility. The idea that business is some how above moral action, or even consideration is exactly what brings on the child labor’s of Nike and the like. I do agree that it will be a surprise to see these business for one team up and second actually be willing to risk some profit for a moral cause. But as commentators, and consumers might we not want to ask them to be responsible?

    One further comment. I don’t believe that we should be looking to the ‘man in the white house’. This portriat of the president as the strong leader is frighteningly despotic. It is of course the job of the government to decide foreign policy, but it is not only the president. And the president is meant to be a representative of the soveirgn that all the citizens of our country make up (including us and Google’s CEOs). The point being if Google, Yahoo etc make a choice about this matter there is just as much legitamcy in that as the president making the choice.

  8. It’s not only the government’s responsibility, nor is it only that of U.S. corporations – it’s both. The corporations should be supporting the values that allow them to occur/grow/exist and they should receive concerted support from the government.

    In the not too distant future, American “intellectual technology” (i.e. Google) will be treated more by the government as an export, a card to play and offer in the game of global trade. “If you want us to buy those products from you, you have to accept Google with lesser constraints…” This is the closest America will come to exporting it’s values, and why global trade will ultimately have a greater effect on the “spread of freedom” and “democratization” of our planet than warfare.

    Either that, or we’ll re-elect him AGAIN… 🙂

  9. We can all agree that our governments ought to provide leadership and policies, and that such are likely to be the most effective means.

    But we (individuals and corporates) shouldn’t abandon our own responsibilities and principles, merely because the man in the White House (or equivalent) hasn’t yet shouldered them for us.

    Should US tobacco companies knowingly market cigarettes to children in those countries which haven’t yet developed their own protection laws, merely because it’s profitable, and the US hasn’t yet outlawed such behaviour by US companies operating elsewhere? Would you also say to them that it’s not their problem, that anything goes until there’s a US policy (conveniently also protecting them from competitive disadvantage)?

    Government leadership doesn’t arise out of thin air: it follows the example of good people (and good companies) standing up for their principles, even (especially) to their own disadvantage. How many shameful actions by companies in US history have preceded new, rather than broken existing, laws and policies? Where the shame (by any human measure) was in the actions, not in the letter or absence of the law?

    ‘Evil’ is not only what appears on a Government ‘these things are evil’ list; not only something you can successfully fight; not only something for which your competitors also agree to forgo profits/opportunities.

    Google valuing appeasement over human rights is Google’s fault, is their problem. That it’s also our collective problem, and our Governments’ problem, simply doesn’t change that. It’s “Don’t be evil”, not “Don’t be evil … unless we’re out on our own on an unprofitable limb”. Rightly criticising a policy vacuum shouldn’t also shield anyone acting badly in that vacuum from criticism.

    You’ve handed Google (and GYMA) a cop out, John. I urge you to take it back.

  10. Just a very short note for now.

    How many chinese search engines are there.

    How many are directly owned by full Chinese Communist Party members and freinds.

    One day we will be humble.

  11. I think it is pretty weak to give GYMA a hall pass and foist all responsibilities onto the President. Companies are supposed to have their own set of ethics, the federal government only sets the lowest common denominator set of rules.

    Think of the example of consumer activism during the later stages of the apartheit era in South Africa. Gov’t policy was a bit..maleable. “Constructive engagement” was the policy in the early 80’s. Sound familiar? It wasn’t until sustained public pressure on both the gov’t and individual corporations that things changed.

    I think it is time for the shareholders to speak up.

  12. Two thoughts:

    1. Google has never been in China previous to now because they couldn’t monetize any of the traffic. Without advertisers who pay for clickthroughs and for consumers who buy stuff, there is no business model. Therefore, Google can be idealistic…”Do No Evil”. The only reason that they are in China now is : a) pressure from the market/ investors b) other new products/ services which are China specific that have large business potential. They did hire Microsofts top China guy who had been doing some cool stuff on voice recognition in Asia.

    2. Let’s remember the grey aspects of this story. The Chinese government is not a government that’s completely ignoring it’s own people. Over the course of 15 years, this repressive government has nonetheless, brought 100s of millions of poor peasants to a comfortable standard of living–more than any government has ever done anywhere. There are still 700 million living in poverty who are desperate for jobs.

    So…Chinese government does awful things, Chinese government does miraculous things. Google avoided the greyness of this story as long as they could. They said we are good. Chinese government bad. Of course, the answer is somewhere in between. (Psst Google IS a MEDIA company and a software company)

  13. Interesting rant. As a former polisci major, I love how the argument about whether US foreign policy should be guided by realpolitik or idealism never goes away.

    I don’t understand why you’re so pessimistic about change in China — rising living standards beget expectations for the finer things in life, like freedom of expression. Who knows how long or what exactly it will look like? And aren’t there constant protests happening now, as the previous poster notes?

    I think the prospect of a segmented Chinese Internet — brought about by multilingual domain names, an alternate root, sheer subterfuge or a combination thereof — is a bigger danger to impartial information being available in China than anything GYMA (weird acronym) does or doesn’t do.

  14. Sorry. Take away the money, and you see these GYMA execs as they really are.When the Good Guys start aiding and abetting the jackboots… any jackboots… in putting away those brave enough to state their views, the guys are no longer good.

  15. John, you get results:

    I don’t quite understand what you think our leverage on China is going to be no matter who the man (or woman) in the White House is.

    I also think it’s funny that you provide the Cheney interview as ironic commentary when certainly the policy in Iraq is pro-democracy and pro-freedom – what you are proscribing for China. I guess you just don’t like the war part?

  16. I wanted to comment earlier but it looks like at least some Chinese IP’s are blocked by your anti-spam system. But I just figured out this TypeKey system. Anyways, I ended up putting my comment on my blog at Basically, good post, but let’s not view China as an enemy. It’s what the US government wants everyone to think.

  17. @Zack:

    John said: “Until the person leading this country values human rights over appeasement, and decides to lead on this issue, we’re never going to make any progress.”

    He didn’t say this was Bush’s fault. He said that until a US President makes it a priority, there’ll be no traction.

    In the runup to 2000, you couldn’t get companies to share data on their Y2K fixes. Fear overruled cooperation. People in the process industries who wanted to make sure things would rollover without crashing had to lobby Clinton and the Congress to provide some air cover so they’d cooperate without fear of reprisal (lawsuits, patent fights, sitting down with your competitors unarmed.)

    You want to go to China with open systems, then you need a Nixon, Bush, or Clinton to provide some assurances to the parties that this isn’t going to be about picking winners or helping people put knives in each other’s backs on the way.

  18. I agree with Kiam. China is not our enemy, but neither is it our friend. I blame the citizens of every nation for the government they tolerate.

    I love how the Ukraine finally figured it out: Government is a Myth. Government is just a bunch of schmucks sitting around in offices with the doors closed.

    If you clog the streets and refuse to let the office zombies into their offices, you can bring down the government peacefully. While this may sound overly simplified, the root of the problem seems to be this: Who Says You Must Honor Your Tormentors?

    I love the Chinese people and I blame each individual in China for their repressive government, that Power That Pretends To Be.

    If all the people, or most, rise up, no corporation, no government can stand.

    History proves this time and again.

    One thing we free peoples can do is keep proclaiming The Rights of Man and Universal Democracy Revolution, of which the blog is a major player.

  19. @Bill,

    Past is Prologue.

    John is a Very Smart Guy and one of the few on my BlogRoll – which I hold dear.


    ANY and EVERY decision you or your company (by association) makes is YOURS. It is YOURS to LOVE and BE and DEFEND.

    The Beauty of Transparency is just starting to dawn on those who LOVE Transparency World Wide.

    Get Ready for Change.

  20. The more interesting question is : what % of Chinese-originated net traffic are GYMA actually capturing anyway? It might well be that GYMA’s share of the Chinese search market is so small that their decisions to restrict or not restrict may not actually mean very much. We know that Chinese net culture is vibrant and provocative – the cases we hear about are only the few that make it into the Western press. Let’s not make the mistake that just because we in the West find GYMA useful, important and significant then it must follow that Chinese internet users feel the same way. Where are the Chinese voices in this debate?

  21. Wrong. We can’t wait for the president or any other government “leader” to act. Each of us is responsible for our own actions. It’s up to the employees of Yahoo!, Google, et al to quit rather than turn over information to the Chinese government. It’s those actions that made a difference in Europe in the 1930s — individuals who refused to be complicit with those in power who would crush their opponents.

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