International Herald Tribune, February 3, 2006
WASHINGTON — As soon as news surfaced that Google was blocking access to certain politically sensitive terms and Web sites on its new China site, condemnation and indignation quickly came its way. A congressman accused Google, whose corporate motto is “Don’t Be Evil,” of enabling evil. Reporters Without Borders denounced the company as hypocritical. Pundits lambasted it as kowtowing to a corrupt, authoritarian regime.
But Google’s critics in Washington seem to be suffering from amnesia. After all, the U.S. government also knows quite a bit about doing business with China. Only a little more than five years ago, Congress granted China permanent normal trade status, a move that paved the way for it to enter the World Trade Organization and for U.S. companies to do business more easily with this corrupt, authoritarian regime.
Washington could have rejected a policy of economic engagement with the Chinese Communists. Indeed, human rights and labor groups argued for precisely this throughout the 1990s. But both houses of Congress overwhelmingly approved the favorable trade status.
Unable itself to resist China’s vast market potential or the clear benefits of free trade, Washington now insists that every high-tech and Internet company doing business in China must bear the burden of ending Beijing’s authoritarian rule. Google’s defense that censored information is better than none has been scoffed at as a nauseating rationalization.
As it turns out, what Google is saying is not so different from what Congress – supported by successive Republican and Democratic administrations – said when it granted China permanent trade status. After all, the U.S. government concluded then that doing business with China was on aggregate good for the U.S. economy. It also argued that promoting economic engagement was better for the Chinese people than doing nothing at all.
Unfortunately for Google, it stands at the very nexus of Washington’s frustrations over the slow pace of Chinese democratization and its delusions about the Internet’s potential to bring fundamental political change. The information revolution was supposed to come crashing down on China’s antiquated instruments of authoritarian control. In lobbying for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, President Bill Clinton promised Congress that the Internet would serve as a harbinger of democracy in China.
Yet China refused to roll over upon the Internet’s arrival, acquiring sophisticated technology (including some from American companies) to censor Internet content and intimidating both Western and domestic companies into censoring themselves. Washington, shocked that authoritarian leaders will do what they must to survive, is utterly scandalized.
Frustrated with the resilience of Chinese authoritarian rule, Washington has anointed Western businessmen (without their consent) as freedom fighters and has declared their responsibility to make profits for their shareholders irrelevant.
But the unpleasant reality is that doing business with an authoritarian regime is inherently dirty. American companies like Google must make the necessary compromises to profit in a police state.
The compromises are not pretty, but they are not necessarily groundless. With no small help from U.S. capital and technology, the Internet has become one of the most exciting mediums in Chinese society.
Terms like freedom and democracy are censored, but the Internet has also brought online the Chinese voices on everything from the pain of unemployment to the exhilaration of entrepreneurship, from frustration over pollution to the confusion of Internet romance.
No one knows if the partial opening of China to Western information and values will ultimately deliver China into freedom’s embrace. Google is hoping that it will.
Google may or may not be right. This makes no difference to purists who do not believe in subordinating human rights for long-term or other gains. It is, however, highly hypocritical for Congress to complain when it has made the same compromise with – and holds out the same hope for – the same police state.