As I See It: Betrayal
May 15, 2006 Victor Rozek
Corporations find it hard to think of China as being populated by actual human beings. China is not viewed as a nation, or a people, or even a system of governance. Through corporate eyes, China is, first and foremost, an enormous market that is therefore populated by needs. Being a supplier of “needs” is problematic to the degree that it focuses on the object of the need and ignores the humanity of the needy. When commerce abandons conscience, market share trumps social impact, profits take precedence over scruples, then rules are bent and statutes are circumvented. The more repressive and unpredictable the regime, the greater the fear of losing access to the market and the higher the urgency to protect it by ingratiating yourself to the authorities.
Ingratiation, however, demands capitulation. But surrendering to the dictates of the dictators is a practice that frequently proves fatal for those who stand against the regime. Which brings us to Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, and other leading IT corporations which, in the name of protecting their access to the giant Chinese market, are implementing Chinese censorship demands thereby sending China’s best and bravest to prison, likely to be tortured, and possibly to be killed.
As a deterrent against unwanted intrusion, the Great Wall of China has been replaced by the Great Cyberwall. Constructed and maintained largely by American companies, the Cyberwall is designed to keep unwanted ideas from spreading. It is the most obscene of ironies that as we wage war in the name of democracy, a Chinese blogger who dares to type the word “democracy” can be identified by American-made software and reported to the Chinese government.
And what traitorous deeds are these “running-dog-imperialist-lackeys” guilty of committing? Nothing more subversive than using words like “freedom” or “demonstration” or “human rights” or, God forbid, “Taiwan independence” in their e-mails and blogs. Lin Hai, a Shanghai computer scientist, was perhaps the first victim of Chinese censorship on the Internet. He spent 18 months in a Chinese prison for distributing forbidden e-mail addresses to an online dissident magazine.
He wasn’t the last. In 2002, there were 33 people detained or imprisoned for unapproved Internet use. And the numbers are rising. The government has since shut down thousands of Internet cafes for failing to install surveillance software, and is demanding the equivalent of loyalty oaths from foreign software providers committing them to play by Chinese rules, which include censoring and tattling. Appallingly, everyone signed on.
But this is no child’s game of show and tell. Two dissidents received four year prison sentences for merely posting an article critical of then-president Jiang Zemin. Dissident Jiang Lijun received a similar sentence after Yahoo handed over a draft e-mail to Chinese authorities who used it to charge him with subversion. Reporters Without Borders, an organization that defends dissidents, accused Yahoo of being “implicated in the arrest of most of the people we have been defending.” Yahoo has also been criticized for its part in the 10 year imprisonment of reporter Shi Tao whose crime was sending an e-mail abroad containing information on government media restrictions–an e-mail that Yahoo turned over to the government. Google developed a Chinese version of its search engine that conveniently omits links to verboten sites. Microsoft acceded to Beijing’s wishes and shut down a popular blog that dealt with such subversive issues as freedom of speech. In China, Big Brother has two faces and one of them is corporate.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China reports that China now employs some 30,000 “Internet police” to monitor its citizens, and that it has increased arrests of dissidents and journalists posting objectionable content. And what happens to dissidents arrested for exercising the same freedoms that employees of Microsoft, Google and Yahoo in this country take for granted? A former police officer in China’s Public Security Bureau testified in Australia that detainees were tortured and sometimes beaten to death.
China is now demanding that individuals and companies register their websites with the Ministry of Information Industry or face punishment. To ensure compliance, China has reportedly developed a system called “Night Crawler” that can locate and block Web sites by IP address range. According to a statement made to the commission by Bill Xia, president of Asheville, North Carolina-based Dynamic Internet Technology, “China has developed the largest and most sophisticated IP-blocking and content-filtering system in the world.”
The response of U.S.-based IT providers to accusations of complicity in repression is two-fold and always the same. Microsoft, for example, said that the company abides by the laws, regulations, and norms of each country in which it operates. (Except the laws it wishes to ignore, of course, like say, antitrust laws.) Such declarations of esteem for the law are then immediately followed by some version of “Hey, if we didn’t give them what they wanted, someone else would.” The implication being that another firm’s lack of ethics should be a measure of their own. When operating under that criteria, the company with the lowest ethical standards always wins.
Globalization has allowed companies to incorporate in a large number of countries and to choose from a multitude of rules and regulations under which they can conduct their activities. Want relief from environmental regulations? There are desperate nations willing to provide it. Need cheap labor? You can subcontract with modern slave traders who will manufacture your goods and provide plausible deniability about working conditions under which their employees toil. Need local armies to suppress indigenous people protesting your enterprise? Good relations with local authorities can provide them.
The abandonment of standards falls most heavily on reformers. Not only do they face overwhelming odds, standing vulnerable and unarmed against the murderous power of totalitarian regimes, but they must also oppose the power of multinational corporations eager to align against them. By corporate reasoning, it makes perfect sense: if they didn’t help repressive governments control their citizens, someone else would.
The need for standards is most apparent in the results created in their absence. What if there were no standards for application development. Everyone just cranked out code, using whatever language they pleased them, documented whatever they felt like documenting, tested sporadically when they had nothing better to do, and moved new versions of applications into production without notifying anyone. The entire system of formal application development would collapse.
Ironically, that is what Chinese authorities dread most; that their control will collapse if their citizens’ longing for freedom grows stronger than their fear. The question is, whose standards will corporations champion? Given the incalculable benefits American corporations derive from doing business on free soil, it would be fitting if their overseas operations reflected domestic values and stood unapologetically with the oppressed, not the oppressors. Championing whichever standard is expedient is championing no standard at all.
Sadly, corporate management seems not to be bothered in the least. John Perkins, in his eye-opening book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, describes how the corporate elite deal with the weight of their ethical betrayals. “These men and women think of themselves as upright. They return to their homes with photographs of quaint sites and ancient ruins, to show their children. They attend seminars where they pat each other on the back and exchange tidbits of advice about dealing with the eccentricities of customs in far-off lands. Their bosses hire lawyers who assure them that what they are doing is perfectly legal. They have a cadre of psychotherapists and other human resource experts at their disposal to convince them that they are helping desperate people.”
Denial and justification are powerful and blinding forces, but if actions reveal true intentions, it is clear that corporate values, like corporate products, are available for sale.