Democracy’s Slow Boat to China

The Wall Street Journal Asia, February 15, 2006

The U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations will hold a hearing today to examine the operating procedures of U.S. Internet companies in China. But at the heart of the matter rests a burning question that is unlikely to be answered: What if China does not democratize?

Congressional questions will not address this issue, and will instead focus on U.S. corporate behavior. Google, Yahoo!, Cisco Systems and Microsoft have all been widely criticized for aiding Chinese censorship, and representatives from all these companies will be present at the hearing. Buried amidst the condemnation of loose corporate morals, however, is a much broader issue that America’s corporate giants cannot address on their own: The fact that something might be desperately wrong with U.S. policy toward China.

When the U.S. Congress granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations to China in 2000, proponents of expanded trade predicted that China’s ongoing economic opening would ultimately lead to political liberalization. The Internet was supposed to be a crucial engine spurring such liberalization. Then President Bill Clinton observed, “[B]y letting our high-tech companies in to bring the Internet and the information revolution to China, we will be unleashing forces that no totalitarian operation rooted in the last century’s industrial society can control.”

Some five years later, Beijing has managed to upgrade its censorship techniques to adapt to the Internet age, intimidating both political dissidents and American companies alike. The Chinese government’s success at political repression has reminded policymakers that at least in the short run, Beijing may have found a way to persist in its authoritarian, repressive ways while devouring cash and technological know-how from the West.

At the moment, these problems are overshadowed by congressmen’s far greater interest in seeking legislation to limit U.S. business collaboration with Chinese Internet censorship. The most sensible legislative proposal currently comes from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission, which has suggested that Congress prohibit U.S. companies, in the absence of formal legal action, from disclosing information about Chinese users or authors of online content to the Chinese government. Such a solution allows U.S. Internet companies to continue to compete in China while easing the pressure to succumb to demands from the Chinese police state.

Regardless of what legislation is offered, policymakers must still confront the unpleasant reality of democratization’s slow boat to China.

This in no way means that economic engagement with China should end. It does mean, however, that although former President Clinton (and the business community) may have been overly optimistic about the democratizing effect of trade and the Internet in 2000, policymakers are not alleviated of the responsibility to look for alternative strategies.

So perhaps after the public dress-down of U.S. Internet giants, Congress can have a serious conversation about a strategy for democratization in China. Each year since 2002, either one or both houses of Congress have sponsored a resolution titled the “Global Internet Freedom Act.” The latest version calls for the commitment of $50 million to establish an office of Global Internet Freedom to combat Internet jamming by repressive governments.

Perhaps Congress can now discuss whether, as the resolutions suggest, to invest large sums in developing technologies to circumvent Chinese Internet controls; whether some of this money would be better spent supporting activists organizing rural and worker protests throughout China; whether resources should be more focused on intellectuals who inform public opinion by revealing corruption and repression; or all of the above.

It seems indefensible that an American company could escape legal consequences for helping to send a Chinese political dissident to prison. On the other hand, it’s entirely unrealistic for U.S. companies to do what some human-rights activists are advocating: Walk out of China all together whenever the Chinese regime demands compliance with unsavory regulations.

“What if China does not democratize?” is an ever-more pressing question. Before China gained permanent trade status, many argued that trade would help China democratize. Today, while not disavowing this possibility, the U.S. government should begin a serious search for Plan B.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Asia © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All rights reserved.

1 Comment

  1. [Note: The following translation is submitted by a Chinese netizen and not provided by the author of the article.]

    Democracy’s Slow Boat to China

    BY Ma,Ying 亚洲华尔街日报 出版日期:2006年2月15日

    众议院国际关系委员会下属的非洲、全球人权和国际运作委员会(The U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations)将会在今天举办一个听证会以审查美国互联网公司的操作程序。但问题的核心在于一个棘手的问题,那个问题很可能是无法作答的,即:如果中国没有民主化,那该怎么办?


    当2000年的时候,美国国会给予了中国永久性正常贸易关系,膨胀的贸易(使国会议员们)预测了一个乐观的未来,即中国正在深化的经济开放将最终导致政治上的自由化,他们大部分人都成了这种乐观估计的拥护者。互联网被认为是政治自由化的一个重要的推动引擎。克林顿则表示,“通过让我们的高科技公司进入中国并使互联网和信息革命在中国掀起狂飙,我们将发动力量,没有源自上个世纪工业社会的极权主义的运作(totalitarian operation)能控制住这种大变动。”

    大约五年后,北京政府已经能够提升其审查技术以适应互联网时代了,他们像恐吓政治异议人士一般的恐吓美国公司。在政治压制上获得成功的中国政府已经提醒了(美国对华政策的)决策者,至少在短期内, 随着投入巨额资金以及向西方获取技术上面的诀窍,北京政府可能已经发现了一种坚持威权主义的镇压方式。

    目前,因为国会议员在寻求立法以限制美国企业与CCP政府的互联网审查计划相勾结上表现出了更大的兴趣,上述那些问题的重要性便相形见拙了。目前,最合理的立法是来自美中经济与安全委员会(U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission),该委员会建议,国会要禁止美国公司在没有正式的合法行动的情况下,不能泄露中国用户或网络作家的私人信息给中国政府。这样一个解决方案使美国互联网公司得以继续在中国展开竞争,与此同时却减轻对CCP政府施加压力而屈从于中国这样一个警察国家。



    或许在公众斥责了美国的那些互联网巨人之后,国会可能在寻找一种中国民主化的战略这一议题上有了一场严肃的对话。自2002年以来的每一年,参议院、众议院或国会两院已经提议了一项名为“全球网路自由法案”(“Global Internet Freedom Act”)的解决方案。该法案的最新版本承诺要花费5000万美圆以设立一个全球网路自由办公室(office of Global Internet Freedom)来打击压制性政府干扰互联网的举动。


    一家美国公司由于协助CCP把中国的政治异议人士送进了监狱认为可以逃避法律后果, 看来是站不住脚的了。另一方面,对于美国的公司来说让他们去做一些人权活动人士正在提倡的事情:当CCP政权以令人厌恶的管制条例来要求他们顺从的时候就以集体退出中国市场来与之抗衡,是完全不切实际的。


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s