Chinese Dissidents and Yahoo:

A few weeks ago, I criticized Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco for cooperating with evil, because each of those companies assists the Chinese suppression of dissent, in order to be able to make money from the lucrative and growing Chinese market. Some apologists for the companies replied that, even though the companies were assisting repression and making it more efficient and pervasive, the companies were somehow encouraging the long-run development of freedom in China.

Today, the Financial Times reports on a letter which a leading Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, has sent to Yahoo. Having spent time in prison for speaking the truth about China's ruling Communist Party, Liu "says Yahoo has enough market clout not to need to toady to authorities." He explains the corporate-communist deal: coporations make profits at the expense of human rights; the communists are given Internet control, and new means to squelch dissent. Thus:

"The collusion of these two kinds of ugliness means that there is no way for western investment to promote freedom of speech in China, and that in fact it greatly increases the ability of the Communist party to blockade and control the internet," he writes.

"You are helping the Communist party maintain an evil system of control over freedom of information and speech," he writes.

Simply put, there appears to be no way to be an ethical Internet company in China today, just as there was no way to be an ethical supplier of spy equipment to the USSR or Nazi Germany. Corporations are generally supposed to maximize their profits, but there is a point at which a particular form of profit maximization becomes unethical. It's ethical for companies to make barbed wire, but it's not ethical for the company to sell barbed wire to a regime which the company knows will use the barbed wire to build concentration camps.

The American Internet companies which do business in China are assisting the creation of the world's most sophisticated architecture of repression. No company should make profits at such a terrible cost to human rights. After American companies left, the Chinese tyrants would undoubtedly find other, inferior, foreign companies to provide Internet services and assist with the suppression of liberty. It would be better, though, if China's architecture of repression were built by inferior, less efficient companies, rather than by the best minds of the world's best computer companies.

If expelled from China, an ethical company could further assist human rights by setting up major offices in free Taiwan.

alkali (mail) (www):
Query whether there isn't a division to be made between (1) companies that are acceding to the party's demands for limitations on speech-enabling technology (e.g., blogs, chat rooms) and (2) companies that actually provide "speech-disabling" technology (e.g., firewall and monitoring technologies).

It seems possible that type #1 companies are providing some real benefits, just like the companies that sold copy machines and manual typewriters into Cold War-era Eastern Europe, even if those technologies are used to some extent by the party appartus.

(I am raising this mostly for discussion: it may not be possible to make a principled distinction of this type.)
10.18.2005 2:04pm
William Spieler (mail) (www):
Sounds like we need an encrypted, peer to peer, distributed web browser.

Where's /. when you need them?
10.18.2005 2:26pm
TM Lutas (mail) (www):
There are 65,535 TCP/IP ports. You can stick a web server or any other service on any one of them. The usual port numbers are just a convenience and, in fact, lots of people move all sorts of odd packets on odd ports. Without a deep inspection of every packet, it's impossible to determine whether a particular data packet is "subversive" by whatever definition of subversive the censor of the day has in mind.

The only saving grace of these repressive systems is that they stave off the day when the Internet forks and the PRC adopts an incompatible network that is much more censorship friendly. This is a real problem and one that would have much worse implications for the progression of chinese political freedom. The PRC is already having test runs to see what would happen if they try to go their own way. The engineering uproar that happens every time is very pro-freedom.
10.18.2005 2:40pm
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
I find it amusing that conservatives who were gung ho to fight the Cold War against the Soviets are now gung ho to help the
Chinese build up their economy because it would eventually lead to more freedom. Riiiiight. Looks like that strategy is doing great!

Let's face it. Dealing with dictatorships does not increase the freedom of the oppressed, it corrupts the businesses from the free nations. Look at the European economic relationships with Saddam. Yahoo and others have fallen prey to the same forces that entwined France and Russia to the Butcher of Baghdad.
10.18.2005 2:47pm
Jerry Mimsy (www):
10.18.2005 2:54pm
ArtD0dger (mail):
What if there was a grassroots campaign to encrypt web content? Would the widespread use of existing encryption protocols like SSL slow these people down? Even a little?
10.18.2005 2:58pm
Helping the PRC build up their economy has already led to a massive increase in freedom. There is simply no question that the average PRC resident, and especially those in urban areas, is far more free in every meaningful way than they were at any time since 1949. At the same time, that is no excuse for Google, Yahoo, etc. to help the CCP try to limit new outlets for that freedom. International trade has been good for the Chinese (and everyone else) living in the PRC and one shouldn't deny that reality because some aspects of it are still less than perfect. But there's still a long way to go and if Google, etc. showed some backbone they could make things even better.
10.18.2005 3:01pm
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
Yes, I am sure that practitioners of Falun Gong agree with you. Or members of non-approved churches. Or political dissidents.

How did I miss the bloom of freedom in Communist China?
10.18.2005 3:15pm
You missed it by focusing on only a few issues. These issues are very important and I certainly don't mean to suggest otherwise. I've lived in Beijing for two years and in Taiwan for one. I am fulling willing to say that the latter country (and yes, I do consider it a separate country) is far more free than the PRC. It's obscene that a billion people can neither pick nor criticize their leaders.

But, that doesn't mean the situation is not better than it was in the past, and that's my point. People can be far more critical of their gov't than they could in the 80's or even the 90's. They have access to all sorts of media that would have be completely closed off to them in the past. They have more economic freedom than they've ever had since the CCP took over. These freedoms are real, and the middle class that they helped to build will hopefully keep demanding more. And again, trade and the need for economic advancement is the key factor in these improvements.

As a side note, calling it "Communist China" is really pretty meaningless these days. A dictatorship? Absolutely, but it's just not a communist system in any meaningful sense of the word.
10.18.2005 3:36pm
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
"They have access to all sorts of media that would have be completely closed off to them in the past."
And apparently that media censors itself in order to maintain marketshare.

I will grant you that "Communist China" is now likely a misnomer, even though they are still the Peoples' Republic on paper. It appears the system is more fascistic that Communist. The question becomes, barring them picking a losing fight like Germany and Japan did, will they be able to keep the bellies full enough to keep the people from revolting. And will they keep enough Western wallets full enough to neuter real pressure for reform? I fear that they have gained valuable economic hostages - as well as technical advancements - that could be used to apply pressure for a "measured response" to any future expansionism by Beijing.
10.18.2005 3:54pm
And apparently that media censors itself in order to maintain marketshare.

Yes. Did you read my original post? Note the comment " excuse for Google, Yahoo, etc. to help the CCP try to limit new outlets for that freedom." I am in no way trying to condone what these companies are doing and have voice opposition to it in a number of places. (I should also note that the print media such as the NYT, WSJ, etc. do not self-censor in the editions that are sold in Beijing.) However, that is separate from the issue of whether or not the situation has improved dramatically for the average Chinese person. We don't have perfect freedoms in the US, that doesn't mean we're as bad as the USSR was. There are certainly things to fear from China and many unpleasant possibilities, but there is also great potential for continued advancement.
10.18.2005 4:16pm
Rich (mail): do we reconcile our dominant economic system (capitalism) which is amoral with the wish to impress some kind of morality on a capitalist company?
10.18.2005 5:22pm
SimonD (www):
To what purpose would one differentiate between internet companies vs. more traditional companies? Are not WalMart and other companies who outsource their manufacturing to China doing more-or-less the same thing by providing economic stability to the Chinese regime?
10.18.2005 5:28pm
Just because the economic system is amoral (in a sense) doesn't mean the actors within it need to be. Google's "informal corporate motto" is "Don't be evil" ( Can't their stockholders and others hold them to that? I don't think the US gov't should but that's a different issue.

As for providing economic stability to the Chinese regime, yes, this happens. But the outsourcing is also building the middle class that will, I hope, eventually force that regime to change and do it in a peaceful manner. I think we'd all rather have more Chinas than North Koreas, right?
10.18.2005 5:46pm
Rich (mail):

The actors are primarily guided by the profit motive. The companies first duty to stockholders is to increase the value of the company (increase the value of shares). I'm just playing devils advocate.
10.18.2005 6:23pm
SimonD (www):
As for providing economic stability to the Chinese regime, yes, this happens. But the outsourcing is also building the middle class that will, I hope, eventually force that regime to change and do it in a peaceful manner.
If that theory holds any water whatsoever, please explain why it applies to China but does not apply to Cuba. You can't have it both ways: either we embargo communist regimes, or we trade with them.
10.18.2005 6:24pm
If that theory holds any water whatsoever, please explain why it applies to China but does not apply to Cuba.

I agree completely. I think think it's idiotic to boycott communist regimes. Free trade (or as free as it can be) is probably the cheapest and most effective way to lead such regimes to liberalize and possibly either collapse or have a relatively painless transfer of power. I'm not saying this will definitely happen with China, but it's a lot more likely than with Korea or Cuba. It's pretty clear that the Cuba embargo is still in place because of Florida's electoral votes and not because of any rational foreign policy calculation.
10.18.2005 6:46pm
Anonymous Coward:
Tawain needs to send a message. I would strongly encourage them to embargo all ram, processors and asics to companies that do bussiness in mainland China.

Imagine Cisco, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google slammed out of 85% of worlds ram. That would send a message.
10.18.2005 7:22pm
Dick King:
Google's shareholders cannot hold the company to their "don't be evil" pledge or to anything else, because the GOOG shares that are in circulation are toy shares.

The "A" shares that are publicly traded have one vote each. The "B" shares held by insiders have ten votes each. It says right in their prospectus that they expect a few insiders to have complete control of the company for the forseeable future.

10.18.2005 7:55pm
DevHyfes (mail):
Alkali is exactly right, and it is absurd that people like Kopel continues to conflate companies like Google, Yahoo and MSN with "Evil".

Providing razor-wire to a dictatorship and offering censored news feeds are two different things. This isn't like Cisco who is actually tooling China's networks to repression. Rather it is Google News only giving a portion of their news to people in China. And before hopping on the "Censorship is evil" bandwagon, people should go out and take a look at laws in Germany, Brittain and even the US. Content is filtered ALL THE TIME by these content providers in order to comport with local laws.

But instead of a reasoned debate on the matter, Kopel continues to merely assert that the Chinese are better off with no news, rather than censorship-free news; better off with no email, chat, or other internet services rather than services that the government cannot control in specific circumstances.

What proof does he provide for this bald assertion? Nothing...well nothing except for the same bald assertion from another source, a Chinese Dissident. I'm not about to say that the person doesn't have a right to his opinion, just that he should prove his point rather than assert it without evidence.
10.18.2005 10:19pm
mighty iguana:
what are you talking about DevHyfes? Sure content is filtered all time but different opinions and differents veiws are not censored. As opposed to being not free to access other views which the chinese are doing.
10.18.2005 11:12pm
John Jenkins (mail):
There are 1 billion people in China. It is Google's obligation to resist Chinese tyrrany when the people of China choose not to. Does anyone in China really need Google News to tell him the government is oppressive?

The theory here is apparently that Google et al. should not provide services at all if they can't supply complete services. Isn't the result of that an argument that no information is better than imperfect information? Do we really believe that?
10.19.2005 3:43am
David Jay:

Regarding your comment that capitalism is amoral, I have to take exception. Because transactions between parties are voluntary, both parties are able to pursue their own benefit without coercion. This is morality at it's core. I do not impose my will on you and you do not impose your will on me. If I want my $1.49 more than I want a pound of ground beef, I keep my money and the store keeps its ground beef.
10.19.2005 4:00pm