by Jeff Jarvis
I am delighted that our national — our Western — love affair with China is hitting the skids. We were in love with nothing but its huge and opening market and plain greed pushed every company in sight to move into China, blindly and blithely ignoring the problems there. We could have opened our eyes over human rights. We could have opened our eyes over free speech, Yahoo’s complicity in jailing a journalist, other companies’ complicity in censoring the speech of the Chinese. We could have opened our eyes over the country’s unregulated and amoral economy, poisoning our children, pets, and poor people (some say that is just a stage in economic development; I say bullshit, it is the product of a dictatorship without a moral center). We’ve had so many opportunities. At last, we’re opening our eyes over Tibet and I hope we reexamine our lust for China’s money and the leverage we have to make it behave like a civilized and moral economy.
Finally, the IOC realizes it has a crisis. Finally, companies are realizing that their association with China can be bad for them. Finally, public figures are taking a leadership role (see Steven Spielberg’s refusal to work on the games). And finally, politicians are realizing that they must take a stand. Hillary Clinton and John McCain have said they would not attend the Olympic opening ceremonies, a small but important symbolic statement.
(Barack Obama won’t go that far. Said the Times this morning: “Senator Barack Obama suggested that Mr. Bush should wait to make a final decision, but leave a boycott ‘firmly on the table.’ ” Firmly on the table? That sounds like something a Bush press secretary would say. You see, friends, this is the kind of prevarication I fear from an Obama administration. It’s a small thing, of course, but I see in that small thing I see someone who wants to be everyone’s friend and who has trouble making a firm decision. I see Jimmy Carter.)
Nick Kristof has a terrific column in The New York Times today on the power of blogs and the internet to challenge Chinese dictatorship. Yes, it’s behind the Great Wall of New York. But I’ll quote some good bits.
Kristof starts his own blogs in China and posts all kinds of things that censors should consider inflammatory — about imprisoned journalists, corruption, Falun Gong, and Tiananmen Square. The censors put asterisks on a few words but the posts stay up. And Kristof says:
All this underscores, I think, that China is not the police state that its leaders sometimes would like it to be; the Communist Party’s monopoly on information is crumbling, and its monopoly on power will follow. The Internet is chipping away relentlessly at the Party, for even 30,000 censors can’t keep up with 120 million Chinese Netizens. With the Internet, China is developing for the first time in 4,000 years of history a powerful independent institution that offers checks and balances on the emperors.
It’s not that President Hu Jintao grants these freedoms, for he has arrested dozens of cyberdissidents as well as journalists. But the Internet is just too big and complex for State Security to control, and so the Web is beginning to assume the watchdog role filled by the news media in freer countries. . . .
He tells the story of blogger Li Xinde, whom he has covered before, going around China “reporting on corruption and human-rights abuses.” In a great game of political wack-a-mole, Mr. Li keeps popping up. He told Kristof:
“They can keep closing sites, but they never catch up. You can’t stop the Yellow River from flowing, and you can’t block the bloggers.”
Put that on a T-shirt and wear it in the Forbidden City.
China’s leaders decided years ago to accept technologies even if they are capable of subversive uses: photocopiers and fax machines at first, and now laptops and text messaging. The upshot is that China is much freer than its rulers would like.
To me, this trend looks unstoppable. I don’t see how the Communist Party dictatorship can long survive the Internet, at a time when a single blog can start a prairie fire.
: These movements and technologies need our support. That’s why I’ve been lambasting or lampooning Yahoo and Google executives over their China policies.
But at last week’s Hyperlinked Society conference, I spent a little time with people who know one helluva lot more about this issue than I do, including Xiao Qiang of the UC-Berkeley China Internet Project and Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices. I won’t attempt to say what they say for fear of misquoting them. I’ll just give you my own thoughts. First, I’ll try to capture the back-and-forth we see on China and the internet:
The company lines we keep hearing from those who do business in China are (1) that the Chinese people are better off with a crippled internet than no internet at all, and (2) that these companies need to follow local laws. The other line we sometimes hear is that the Chinese people don’t care about politics and don’t want or need these freedoms, but I won’t dignify that with a response.
The problem with hiding behind these company lines is simply that if you never say no to the Chinese government, they will keep doing what they do. Not saying no to them is saying yes.
Many of us wish these companies would take the risk of saying no when China’s dictators demand information that might send people to jail or cripple their services. But the companies and their defenders reply they these are businesses that have an obligation to their shareholders to make money; they can’t pull out of China or even risk having to. Some of us say in return that these companies need to have an ethical compass or else they are damaging not only their ability to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning but also their brands and reputations around the globe — and that is, indeed, a business issue.
But I think it is also up to us to put countervailing pressure, to give these companies cover. The problem in our own First Amendment fight against the so-called Parents Television Council and its lapdogs at the FCC and in Congress is that no one wants to vote in favor of the First Amendment when they can be accused of voting for smut. We need to give them cover; we need to demand our freedom of speech. At a much more urgent level, the same is true for internet companies doing business in China.
It’s fair to say that perhaps these companies should not be expected to do this on their own — to stand up to the world’s biggest dictatorship and their shareholders at the same time, just because they want to be decent. So perhaps it is up to us to put that pressure on by asking that they stand up for principle to protect their trusted relationships with us — their brands and businesses, in short. I’m not talking boycotts and nasty campaigns. Think of this less as an attack on the companies and more as a favor to them. We need to help them out by giving the a reason to stand up and have guts. I’m simply saying that when they try to say no to the Chinese dictators, they need a reason why — because of the pressure around the world supporting freedom of speech for everyone.
I believe the Internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference. I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the Internet – and on companies to stop helping them do it.
Well, give a point to Google. Sergey Brin at least acknowledges that its actions in China conflict with the company’s — let alone this country’s — principles (my emphasis):
Google Inc. co-founder Sergey Brin acknowledged Tuesday the dominant Internet company has compromised its principles by accommodating Chinese censorship demands. He said Google is wrestling to make the deal work before deciding whether to reverse course.
Meeting with reporters near Capitol Hill, Brin said Google had agreed to the censorship demands only after Chinese authorities blocked its service in that country. Google’s rivals accommodated the same demands – which Brin described as “a set of rules that we weren’t comfortable with” – without international criticism, he said.
“We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference,” Brin said. …
Google’s China-approved Web service omits politically sensitive information that might be retrieved during Internet searches, such as details about the 1989 suppression of political unrest in Tiananmen Square. Its agreement with China has provoked considerable criticism from human rights groups.
“Perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense,” Brin said.
The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday that Google’s main Web site, http://www.google.com , was no longer accessible in most Chinese provinces due to censorship efforts, and that it was completely inaccessible throughout China on May 31.
Brin said Google is trying to improve its censored search service, Google.cn, before deciding whether to reverse course. He said virtually all the company’s customers in China use the non-censored service.
“It’s perfectly reasonable to do something different, to say, ‘Look, we’re going to stand by the principle against censorship and we won’t actually operate there.’ That’s an alternate path,” Brin said. “It’s not where we chose to go right now, but I can sort of see how people came to different conclusions about doing the right thing.”
Well, that beats saying you’re not sure what you’d do about Hitler. At least someone is talking about principles.
I noted the irony the other day that we’re whining about net neutrality here so we can download movies faster and the Chinese are worried about net neutrality so they can speak without ending up in prison. Why was Brin in Washington? To testify for net neutrality here.
Glenn Reynolds wonders whether Google has peaked. Hard to say. It has the clear advantage of weight. But that’s not the point, really. It’s that not that it is big, it can disappoint many by its actions — in China, regarding news sources, and so on. Can a giant still be loved?
It’s when commenters like “Christian” on Jeff Jarvis’s post get personal as in this comment on Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel shows:
“Bottom line is Terry Semel is a plain fool.”
Utterly irresponsible and uncalled for comment, in my opinion.
If you’re going to have a debate, do so on the merits or de-merits of the issue. The moment the discourse slips into personal insults, the referee should call the player off the field.
For the record, I think it’s meaningless to rant about select internet companies’ behavior in places like China without thinking about the global context of these issues.
To complain about what Yahoo! and Google are doing there misses the larger point of what ALL multi-nationals from ALL countries doing business in China are doing to compete and succeed for their shareholders.
To pick one or two companies out for complaint seems grossly unfair and besides the point.
In my humble view companies like Yahoo! and Google have done noting wrong, and in fact are doing ALL the people of China a world of good by making better information and communications tools available.
They should be applauded.
With all due respect, I think it is just as unproductive to dismiss the discussion as “meaningless” it is to dismiss Semel as a “plain fool.”
The important question here is about limits. Are there limits to what a company should do following the laws of the dictatorship in China? That is what we are trying to figure out. That is an important discussion to have.
So it’s legitimate, I think, to try to find that out via other examples. Would you say it’s OK for a company to have done business in apartheid South Africa, for example? Is it OK for a company to hand over users for exercising what all civilized nations recogize as the human right of free speech if that speech violates the propagandistic stranglehold of a dictatorship?
Just because other companies do it, that doesn’t make it OK, I’m sure you’d agree.
Let us, indeed, have this discussion on the merits.