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 Google.cn, 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.
Update: The Tibetans are protesting Google. Ugh.