Logging Off On China

Chinese Internet surfers work at their computer stations in an Internet cafe in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006. Internet companies facing hearings Wednesday before angry U.S. lawmakers say they can't resist China's effort to censor the Web on their own. But industry analysts say that even if Washington tried to enforce free-speech standards, it is likely to have little effect. (AP Photo)
AP
This column was written by Robert B. Reich.
The Republican chairman of the House subcommittee on human rights calls it a "sickening collaboration." A leading Democrat says it's a "disgrace," and asks how the companies' chief executives can sleep at night.

They're talking about American internet companies who are helping the Chinese government suppress free speech in China: Cisco Systems selling networking equipment to the Chinese police to maintain censorship controls; Microsoft, taking down blogs the Chinese government doesn't like; Google, filtering out web sites the government wants blocked, with words in them like "democracy" and "human rights"; and worst of all, Yahoo turning over data leading to the arrest and imprisonment of Chinese dissidents who thought they were using anonymous Yahoo email accounts.

Should we fault these companies? Of course. We can blame them all we want. But so what? They're still going to do whatever the Chinese government demands of them because the stakes are too high and the money is too good.

China is the second-largest Internet market in the world after the United States. More than 100 million Chinese have already logged on. At the rate Internet usage is growing there, within a few years there will be more Chinese on the Internet than Americans. Talk about a market.

American companies are in business to maximize profits. We may want them to be socially responsible but they're answerable to their shareholders. If they don't do well by their shareholders, their executives will find themselves out of jobs. How do they maximize profits and lift share prices? Increasingly, one answer is to sell to the Chinese.

Congress engages in holier-than-thou public condemnation of these Internet companies. It holds hearings to humiliate company representatives appearing before it. Members of Congress appear on television and wag their index fingers in rage. It's all designed to look as if Congress is taking action on behalf of Chinese human rights. In reality, this media circus gets Congress off the hook. It reassures the public that something is being done, when in fact nothing is.

If the U.S. government wants to make Chinese human rights a priority, it could pass a law tomorrow prohibiting American companies from helping the Chinese government trample on the free speech of its citizens. Such a law wouldn't hurt the competitiveness of these companies because they're preeminent in the world. If China wants to be part of the Internet age it has no choice but to allow in Cisco, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and other American firms – who could then tell the Chinese government they're required by American law to respect the free speech of Chinese citizens. Otherwise, no deal.

Besides, given the pressures on these companies to maximize profits, this sort of law is the only way to stop Cisco, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo from being enablers. And it's the only way to get the attention of the Chinese authorities.

But don't hold your breath. Despite all the self-righteous indignation emanating from Congress, the fact is human rights in China are not at the top of America's China agenda. First and foremost, American policymakers need China's central bank to continue to send us almost a billion dollars a day to make up for our budget deficit and low rate of personal savings.
Second, they need China's help dealing with hot spots like North Korea. And American business wants free access to China's huge market, without interference.

The State Department just announced a task force on American Internet companies collaborating with China in repressing free speech. A "task force" is another way of appearing to do something in Washington while actually sending the issue back into the circular file.

Are the Chinese people still better off for Cisco, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo being there than not? Yes. But they'd be even better off if they could speak their minds.

Yet when it comes to China, free speech is not the most important thing on America's mind.

Robert B. Reich
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved